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Though the results are far from definitive, K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University cognitive psychologist who's been studying memory athletes for decades, found it similarly difficult to "interfere" with the memory of Chao Lu, the man who holds the world record for memorized digits of pi (a staggering 67,890), by setting up tests intended to distract or interfere with his mnemonic concentration.
"These manipulations," Ericsson wrote, "did not reduce Chao Lu's virtually perfect accuracy of recall."
It is promising results such these that are an endless source of frustration to the memory athletes and the founders of the USA Memory Championship: The techniques they espouse aren't taught in schools.
"If you can get into this and do it through high school and college and through law school — if I would have known it back then, it would've changed my life," says Dellis. "I think it should be taught to kids, for sure."
But Ericsson does raise an important point.
"From my experience, people who would be interested in training their memory are not your average person," he says.
Roediger puts it even more bluntly: "You're not going to take somebody who's kind of a dullard — they're not going to be memorizing a deck of cards in 24 and a half seconds."
Whether or not the memory techniques can truly soup up the mind's faculties is a question that a second phase of Roediger's project could attempt to answer, using students. Although nothing is set in stone, there is talk within the Superior Memory Project team of starting a freshman seminar in fall 2013 that would not only teach about the way mnemonics work, but attempt to turn its participants into the next generation of memory champions. The researchers would then track the students' academic progress for the remainder of their time at Wash. U.
"We'd compare them to other freshmen who are taking random [seminars]. We'd measure them all beforehand and make sure there's no difference," Roediger says. "It's a natural experiment. We can just follow my twenty, or however many, from my freshman seminar. Do they make better grades?"
One could see Tom Kavanaugh as the memory-athlete antichrist.
Sitting at a table at a Starbucks in the Central West End, he's distractingly handsome. A personal trainer in St. Louis Hills, he looks more like a typical jock than some kind of savant.
But Kavanaugh possesses a different kind of superior memory. In 2006, he took home $142,602 from the game show Jeopardy! — the sixteenth-highest take in the game's history — and is considered one of the show's "champion" players. He lasted for eight episodes.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome," Alex Trebek greeted the cheering audience in the fifth game. "Better than a $21,000 average per win so far for Tom Kavanaugh."
When he thinks back on it now, the closest thing Kavanaugh used to an organized memory technique was stall tactics.
"There were lots of times when it was like, on the tip of my tongue, and I'd ring in, and I'd use that time counting down to remember what it was," says Kavanaugh. "During one of the commercial breaks they told me, 'You have to stop waiting until the buzzer's about to ring.'"
Kavanaugh can't really say how he manages to hang on to odd bits of movie trivia just as easily as Emily Dickinson's nickname ("The Belle of Amherst") and the world's capital cities, or how he can call them up so quickly. It's just always been that way.
"I remember things that I learned in third grade in science class," he says. "People are like, 'Wow.' But doesn't everyone remember what they learned in third grade?"
Kavanaugh is part of another branch of the Superior Memory Project, culled from the ranks of Jeopardy!'s top performers. Just before Santos and Zupp arrived in St. Louis, Eugene Finerman, a loquacious writer from Chicago with an encyclopedic memory for history, became the first Jeopardy! champ to take a turn in Roediger's lab. Finerman won in 1987 and went home with $57,902. (There was a five-win cap back then; under today's rules he would have advanced further.) He made an additional $11,600 at the '87 Tournament of Champions.
"Apparently, I'm still considered an interesting relic," he says bemusedly, seated at a lab computer console. "What I love, I remember. I love history, so I remember all the details. Phone numbers? Uh-uh."
Kavanaugh and Finerman have gone through the same bank of tests as the memory athletes, both as a comparison group, but also to explore the ways innate superior memory works as well.
"They're natural sponges," Roediger describes.
The history of memory research is not devoid of extreme cases of innate superior memory. There have been studies on expert chess players who walk away from games recalling every move. There's the 1920s case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist who was diagnosed with "fivefold synaesthesia," because he experienced everything from a drink order to poems written in a foreign language as something visual and tactile, even imbuing numbers with personalities. Some said that Shereshevsky could not forget things even when he wanted to.