Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Hard Work of Memory

WIRED magazine reported in their April 2009 issue about something extraordinary.

Jill Price is a woman with an incredible memory. She's been written up in press from the scientific Neurocase, to USA Today, to the Wall Street Journal. She's also run the television circuit -- appearing on NPR, 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, and Oprah

She can remember virtually every day of her life from 1974 to today.

But, the point of the Wired article, written by Gary Marcus a cognitive psychologist at NYU, is that her memory is not derived from some unique property of her brain. Most of us are just as physically capable as she is to remember such detail, if only we put as much energy and effort into it.

In my upcoming book I talk about how rats learn a maze. If a rat runs a maze fifty times it will remember the maze for about a year. But if it runs the maze 200 times, it will remember the maze for its entire life.

Ms Price does the same thing. She wasn't born with this memory, she works hard at it, perhaps compulsively. She repeats her memories over and over again. She reviews and reviews and reviews her autobiographical experiences until they are deeply grooved into her memory. She thinks about it, writes journals, and collects person memorabilia.

In some ways, what Jill Price does is analogous to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule in his book Outliers. Mr. Gladwell says that to be extraordinarily good at anything, you must put in about 10,000 hours of practice. Jill Price has probably put in many thousands more hours than that, imprinting her personal memories into her brain and that is why she is so good at it.
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