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The footage is just a tiny fraction of the documentary work that has been done on Wearing, one of the most famous amnesiac patients in the world. The only bigger celebrity was likely "H.M.," a patient who had both his hippocampi removed and immediately lost all ability to store memories. Before his death in 2008, he was the subject of more than 12,000 academic articles that completely changed the way memory is studied. More recently a man named "K.C." gained notoriety after a motorcycle accident almost completely destroyed both his hippocampi — he experiences the same shock and horror every time someone explains 9/11 to him.
Though there has been far more written about human memory's foibles, there's an increasing body of research that treats understanding why memory succeeds as just as valuable as studying how it fails.
"The field typically studies individuals that have poor memories, and we build models based on them," says David Balota, a cognitive- psychology professor at Wash. U. and a co-investigator on the Superior Memory Project. "This is building a different model."
Roediger — a more-salt-than-pepper-haired 65-year-old with a slightly crooked smile — rose to prominence in the 1990s when he entered the infamous "memory wars" at a time when therapy patients all over the nation were acquiring "recovered memories" through controversial techniques such as hypnosis. Visions of horrific sexual abuse and Satanic rituals were assumed to be true. Dozens of cases went to court. The "Satanic panic" died down after investigations proved in some cases that the abuses couldn't have happened. Roediger influenced the conversation by showing that if given a list of words (bed, rest, awake, tired, dream), subjects reported they'd seen related words that never appeared on the list (such as sleep or slumber). The finding proved that it was possible to create false memories.
"That is amongst one of the most widely cited works in the field of memory," says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of law and psychology and a memory expert at University of California- Irvine. "He is a master at designing and conducting experiments."
In the last ten years Roediger's research into the "testing effect" proved that — as unpopular as the notion may be with students — repeated, low-stakes test-taking helps pupils retain information better than simply "studying" the material for the same amount of time. The theory played out when Roediger and his students implemented it in seventh- and eighth-grade classes at Columbia Middle School in Illinois.
"What he's found is, the best way to make a memory is to retrieve the information. It has enormous practical implications," says James McGaugh, a neuroscientist and superior-memory researcher at UC-Irvine. "It's solely his discovery."
Now Roediger; his frequent collaborator, Kathleen McDermott; and Balota hope that studying memory athletes will unravel what Roediger believes could be a particularly helpful form of superior memory — one that's conceivably accessible to anyone.
"We hope, by studying how it succeeds, that maybe all of us can improve our memories," says Roediger. "Hopefully we can find some things that helps in remediating memory for people who have impaired memory."
Nelson Dellis will never forget the two of hearts and the ten of diamonds.
Sitting in the hot seat onstage in the final round of the USA Memory Championship in 2010, Dellis appeared collected. To his left sat the defending champion, and next to him, the 2005 titleholder. All that separated Dellis, a lanky, six-foot-seven-inch University of Miami graduate student, from the championship were two packs of playing cards.
The competitors had survived a gauntlet of memory tasks in order to get to this point. That morning they were tasked with memorizing 117 faces and names, a list of 500 digits, 100 words, a previously unpublished poem and the order of a deck of cards. Dellis had already bested both of his final competitors in speed numbers and memorizing cards. He figured he had it in the bag.
For the final event all three men memorized the same two decks and were about to take turns in a sudden-death elimination challenge, naming the order of the cards one at a time. Dellis went first.
"Ten of diamonds," he said confidently.
There was a tiny silence. One of the other memory athletes shook his head, making a "cut-it" motion with his hand.
"Nelson, we've got two of hearts," the moderator responded.
Dellis' eyes flew to the moderator, then to the ceiling. He'd named the last card in the deck, not the first. As the round proceeded without him, he looked into the audience and smiled mirthlessly at his girlfriend.
"Everyone who was supporting me was really disappointed," he recalls. "I thought I was going to win."
The experience highlights another trick of human memory — we recall tragedy better than triumph.
Though as a spectator sport the USA Memory Championship leaves something to be desired, this is where superior memories are forged. Most memory athletes swear that anyone can do what they do, and though highly competitive, they're willing to share their tricks.
The lessons, however, can be awkward. Seated in the lounge of Wash. U.'s Olin Library, Santos cringes slightly when Riverfront Times presents him with a photo of a female and asks him to explain how he would remember the woman's name.
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