A Memory For All Seasonings

Memory is one of the most important functions of the mind. Without our memories, we would have no identity, no individuality. The following article is about a mnemonist, a person with an extraordinary power of remembering. The title includes a pun, a form of humor based on a play on words. The usual phrase to describe something constant and dependable is “for all seasons”; here the phrase is changed to “for all seasonings.” (Seasonings is another word for spices, such as salt, pepper, and curry.) What hint does this give you about the mnemonist? (Early in the article you will find out.)

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One evening two years ago, Peter Poison, a member of the psychology department at the University of Colorado, took his son and daughter to dinner at Bananas, a fashionable restaurant in Boulder. When the waiter took their orders, Poison noticed that the young man didn’t write anything down. He just listened, made small talk, told them that his name was John Conrad, and left. Poison didn’t think this was exceptional: There were, after all, only three of them at the table. Yet he found himself watching Conrad closely when he returned to take the orders at a nearby table of eight. Again the waiter listened, chatted, and wrote nothing down. When he brought Poison and his children their dinners, the professor couldn’t resist introducing himself and telling Conrad that he’d been observing him. The young man was pleased. He wanted customers to notice that, unlike other waiters, he didn’t use a pen and paper. Sometimes, when they did notice, they left him quite a large tip. He had once handled a table of nineteen complete dinner orders without a single error.

At Bananas, a party of nineteen (a bill of roughly $200) would normally leave the waiter a $35 tip. They had left Conrad $85. Poison was impressed enough to ask the waiter whether he would like to come to the university’s psychology lab and let them run some tests on him. Anders Ericsson, a young Swedish psychologist recently involved in memory research, would be joining the university faculty soon, and Poison thought that he would be interested in exploring memory methods with the waiter. Conrad said he would be glad to cooperate. He was always on the lookout for ways to increase his income, and Poison told him he would receive $5 an hour to be a guinea pig. Conrad, of course, was not the first person with an extraordinary memory to attract attention from researchers. Alexander R. Luria, the distinguished Soviet psychologist, studied a Russian newspaper reporter named Shereshevskii for many years and wrote about him in The Mind of a Mnemonist (Basic Books, 1968).

Luria says that Shereshevskii was able to hear a series of fifty words spoken once and recite them back in perfect order fifteen years later. Another famous example of extraordinary memory, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, was known to have memorized every note for every instrument in 250 symphonies and 100 operas. For decades the common belief among psychologists was that memory was a fixed quantity; an exceptional memory, or a poor one, was something with which a person was born. This point of view has come under attack in recent years; expert memory is no longer universally considered the exclusive gift of the genius, or the abnormal. “People with astonishing memory for pictures, musical scores, chess positions, business transactions, dramatic scripts, or faces are by no means unique,” wrote Cornell psychologist Ulric Neisser in Memory Observed (1981).

“They may not even be very rare.” Some university researchers, including Poison and Ericsson, go a step further than Neisser. They believe that there are no physiological differences at all between the memory of a Shereshevskii or a Toscanini and that of the average person. The only real difference, they believe, is that Toscanini trained his memory, exercised it regularly, and wanted to improve it. Like many people with his capacity to remember, Toscanini may also have used memory tricks called mnemonics. Shereshevskii, for example, employed a technique known as loci. As soon as he heard a series of words, he mentally “distributed” them along Gorky Street in Moscow. If one of the words was “orange,” he might visualize a man stepping on an orange at a precise location on the familiar street. Later, in order to retrieve “orange,” he would take an imaginary walk down Gorky Street and see the image from which it could easily be recalled.

Did the waiter at Bananas have such a system? What was his secret? John Conrad would be the subject of Anders Ericsson’s second in-depth study of the machinations of memory. As a research associate at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Ericsson had spent the previous three years working with William Chase on an extensive study of Steve Faloon, an undergraduate whose memory and intellectual skills were considered average. When Ericsson and Chase began testing Faloon, he could remember no more than seven random digits after hearing them spoken once. According to generally accepted research, almost everyone is capable of storing five to nine random digits in short-term memory. After twenty months of working with Chase and Ericsson, Faloon could memorize and retrieve eighty digits. “The important thing about our testing Faloon is that researchers usually study experts,” Chase says. “We studied a novice and watched him grow into an expert. Initially, we were just running tests to see whether his digit span could be expanded.

For four days he could not go beyond seven digits. On the fifth day he discovered his mnemonic system and then began to improve rapidly.” Faloon’s intellectual abilities didn’t change, the researchers say. Nor did the storage capacity of his short-term memory. Chase and Ericsson believe that short-term memory is a more or less fixed quantity. It reaches saturation quickly, and to overcome its limitations one must learn to link new data with material that is permanently stored in long-term memory. Once the associations have been made, the short-term memory is free to absorb new information. Shereshevskii transferred material from short-term to long-term memory by placing words along Gorky Street in Moscow. Faloon’s hobby was long-distance running, and he discovered that he could break down a spoken list of eighty digits into units of three or four and associate most of these with running times. To Faloon, a series like 4 , 0 , 1 ,2 would translate as four minutes, one and two-tenths seconds, or “near a four-minute mile”; 2, 1, 4, 7 would be encoded as two hours fourteen minutes seven seconds, or “an excellent marathon time.”

When running didn’t provide the link to his long-term memory, ages and dates did; 1, 9, 4, 4 is not relevant to running, but it is “near the end of World War II.” Chase and Ericsson see individual differences in memory performance as resulting from previous experience and mental training. “In sum,” they write, “adult memory performance can be adequately described by a single model of memory.” Not every student of psychology agrees with Chase and Ericsson, of course. “I’m very suspicious of saying that everyone has the same kind of memory,” says Matthew Erdelyi, a psychologist at Brooklyn College. “In my research,” he says, “I find that people have very different memory levels. They can all improve, but some levels remain high and some remain low. There are dramatic individual differences.” It is unlikely that there will be any agreement among psychologists on the conclusions that they have thus far drawn from their research.

The debate about exceptional memory will continue. But in the meantime it is interesting to look deeper into the mind of a contemporary mnemonist. Ericsson and Poison, both of whom have tested Conrad over the past two years, believe that there is nothing intellectually outstanding about him. When they began testing Conrad’s memory, his digit span was normal: about seven numbers. His grades in college were average. Conrad himself says that he is unexceptional mentally, but he has compared his earliest memories with others’ and has found that he can recall things that many people can’t. His first distinct memory is of lying on his back and raising his legs so that his mother could change his diapers.

As a high-school student he didn’t take notes in class—he says he preferred watching the girls take notes—and he has never made a list in his life. “By never writing down a list of things to do, and letting it think for me,” he says, “I’ve forced my memory to improve.” Conrad does believe that his powers of observation, including his ability to listen, are keener than most people’s. Memory, he says, is just one part of the whole process of observation. “I’m not extraordinary, but sometimes people make me feel that way. I watch them and realize how many of them have disorganized minds and memories and that makes me feel unusual. A good memory is nothing more than an organized one.’ One of the first things Conrad observed at Bananas was that the headwaiter, his boss, was “a very unpleasant woman.” He disliked being her subordinate, and he wanted her job. The only way he could get it was by being a superior waiter.

He stayed up nights trying to figure out how to do this; the idea of memorizing orders eventually came to him. Within a year he was the headwaiter. “One of the most interesting things we’ve found,” says Ericsson, “is that just trying to memorize things does not insure that your memory will improve. It’s the active decision to get better and the number of hours you push yourself to improve that make the difference. Motivation is much more important than innate ability.” Conrad began his memory training by trying to memorize the orders for a table of two, then progressed to memorizing larger orders. He starts by associating the entree with the customer’s face. He might see a large, heavy-set man and hear “I’d like a big Boulder Steak.” Sometimes, Peter Poison says, “John thinks a person looks like a turkey and that customer orders a turkey sandwich. Then it’s easy.”

In memorizing how long meat should be cooked, the different salad dressings, and starches, Conrad relies on patterns of repetition and variation. “John breaks things up into chunks of four,” Ericsson says. “If he hears ‘rare, rare, medium, well-done,’ he instantly sees a pattern in their relationship. Sometimes he makes a mental graph. An easy progression—rare, medium-rare, medium, well-done—would take the shape of a steadily ascending line on his graph. A more difficult order—medium, well-done, rare, medium—would resemble a mountain range.”

The simplest part of Conrad’s system is his encoding of salad dressings. He uses letters: B for blue cheese; /-/for the house dressing; 0 for oil and vinegar; F for French; T for Thousand Island. A series of orders, always arranged according to entree, might spell a word, like B-O-O-T, or a near-word, like B-O-O-F, or make a phonetic pattern: F-O-F-O. As Ericsson says, Conrad remembers orders, regardless of their size, in chunks of four, This is similar to the way Faloon stores digits, and it seems to support Chase and Ericsson’s contention that short-term memory is limited and that people are most comfortable working with small units of information. One of the most intriguing things about Conrad is the number of ways he can associate material. Another is the speed with which he is able to call it up from memory.

Ericsson and Poison have also tested him with animals, units of time, flowers, and metals. At first, his recall was slow and uncertain. But with relatively little practice, he could retrieve these “orders” almost as quickly as he could food. “The difference between someone like John, who has a trained memory, and the average person,” says Ericsson, “is that he can encode material in his memory fast and effortlessly. It’s similar to the way you can understand English when you hear it spoken. In our tests in the lab, he just gets better and faster.” “What John Conrad has,” says Poison, “is not unlike an athletic skiil. With two or three hundred hours of practice, you can develop these skills in the same way you can learn to play tennis.” (1945 words)

I Comprehension Quiz
Choose the best way of finishing each statement, based on what you have just read.

1. The psychology professor discovered John Conrad’s incredible ability to memorize: a. in school b. on a test c. in a restaurant

2. Conrad agreed to let the professor study his memory because: a. Conrad was interested in psychology
b. Conrad wanted to increase his income
c. Conrad needed to improve his memory

3. The famous Russian mnemonist Shereshevskii used a memory trick called loci to remember objects by: a. associating them with events in Russian history
b. imagining them placed along a street in Moscow
c. picturing each one in his mind in a different color

4. The memory trick used by Steve Faloon was the association of certain numbers with: a. running times b. important dates
c. both the above d. none of the above

5. Conrad had been:
a. a gifted student
b. a below-average student
c. an average student

6. Part of Conrad’s motivation for developing memory tricks to aid him as a waiter was: a. his desire to get his boss’s job
b. his great admiration for the headwaiter
c. his fear of not finding any work

7. Imagine that four customers have requested that their steaks be cooked in the following way: well-done, medium, medium-rare, rare. According to John Conrad’s “mental graph” technique, this order would be remembered as: a. a steadily ascending line

b. a steadily descending line
c. a mountain range

8. From this article a careful reader should infer that:
a. everyone has about the same memory capacity and can develop a superior memory through practice and motivation b. a good or bad memory is an ability that a person is born with and cannot change to any great degree c. there is still no conclusive evidence as to whether outstanding memories are inborn or developed

II Finding Support For or Against a Hypothesis

As the article points out, some psychologists today believe that extraordinary memories are simply the result of development through hard work and the application of a system. According to them, an average person could achieve a superior memory if he or she tried hard enough. Find evidence from the article to support this hypothesis. Then find evidence from the article that goes against this hypothesis. What is your opinion of this controversial question?

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