3 Keys to fantastic memory

Fantastic memory. I really need this. I’m quite fond of such classic moments as walking into a room without any idea what I’m doing there, forgetting peoples’ names only seconds after I meet them, and once, completely forgetting how old I was (a liberating, if mildly frustrating experience).

Maybe I need the help of one of the big names in the study of expertise, Dr K. Anders Ericsson. He’s done work on what separates good performers from master performers in a number of different fields, and he consistently found that the main factor in expertise is practice. When he turned his attention to the study of people with a fantastic memory abilities, he reports that not only is practice necessary, it is also sufficient.

60s pinup memory

“You’re so forgetful darling! That’s the third time you’ve covered me with suntan lotion!”(credit)

He goes on to cover what he believes are the three essential requirements for fantastic memory:

1) Meaningful Encoding

We looked into what encoding is here. To encode something meaningfully means relating it to existing knowledge – making connections between material.

2) Retrieval Structure

Along with the information being stored, cues should be memorised too. This allows for much greater ease of recall later on – the more ‘paths’ to the memory, the more ways it can be accessed and the recalled. This is the principle behind the link system and the peg system of memory.

3) Speed-up

This is where practice comes in. People with fantastic memory have extensively practised encoding and recalling information – in a way, this trains the processes involved, so that they function more quickly over time. Eventually, as with many learned skills, the process becomes automatic. For example, if you’ve ever learned to drive, you’ll remember that at first you have to put your full attention on the job; but later, you could switch off while driving and think about whatever comes to mind. According to Ericsson, it’s the same thing with memory.

fantastic memory

Bill forgets to pick up his phone once again.

I find Ericsson’s work quite encouraging. It’s kind of nice to know that given huge amounts of dedicated practice, natural talent doesn’t seem to play much of a role in performance. But does this mean we can do “Anything we set our minds to?” Or should we “Stick to our strengths?” The answer to that is here, and it’s probably not what you’re thinking.

Either way though, I have to wonder just how much practice it will take for me to stop walking into rooms without knowing why I’m there…


Ericsson, K.A. (1988). Analysis of memory performance in terms of memory skill. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the psychology of human intelligence, Vol 4. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Ericsson, K.A. & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102, 211-245

1 Comment

  • I can’t remember who started the theory (Ha! No pun intented. Seriously.), but I distinctively remember being in one of my psychology classes and my professor mentioned that the human brain has an easier time remembering things in clumps no greater than 7 items.

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