Can You Become a Savant?

You’ve heard about the savants who can’t brush their teeth but can tell you the day of the week each of our presidents were born.  It sounds ridiculous that a savant could memorize or calculate complex formulas in just seconds.  While having this skill may seem enticing on first blush, unfortunately savants can’t do this with other more practical applications.

Martin Dresler, cognitive neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, looked at the anatomy of memory champions to compare their brains to average people. One of the memory champions, Konrad, also co-authored this study.  He uses visual memory to help him remember names. If a person’s name is “Miller,” he might visualize the person’s face looking at a “mill.”

For more abstract memory challenges, he builds “memory palaces” in his mind.  By picturing a familiar place like your first home, he takes the list of numbers or objects and places them along the path through his house.  If he were memorizing numbers, he might transform the numbers into images.  Because these images would be personal, it would stand out along the path through his house.

Want to try this?

Dresler and Konrad found that people who learned how to use the memory palace, could use that skill months later.  While this is very interesting, it is not conclusive.  There are many studies of people who have memorized the Bible or historical dates.  When asked to memorize other things like a list of groceries or phone numbers, they perform just like everyone else. So far, these intense memory training programs don’t cure normal forgetfulness. 

I find these studies to be fascinating. The more we discover about the way we learn and retain information, the better teachers we’ll be to our children and students. And, if we could find a way to improve memory for our aging population, that would bring relief to millions of people.