Is your brain holding you back?

When Greg Detre (co-founder of Memrise) was telling me about Carol Dweck’s research, I couldn’t help being a little sceptical. The research seemed to be advocating an overly optimistic outlook: as long as we put enough time and effort in, we can all achieve incredible things. I felt a kind of sympathy for the fixed mindset, which takes intelligence to be something that we only have a certain amount of and that we can’t change. This is both an intuitive and a comfortable supposition – that we’re born with a certain level of cognitive power, and that we are therefore not in some sense responsible for our abilities, let alone those of our pupils and children.

In response, Greg told me about some studies which address this issue. They shed light specifically on the question of whether incredible achievements of memory are within our reach. The first is about chess players. De Groot (1965, 1966) and Chase and Simon (1973) compared international chess masters and chess beginners on their ability to remember pieces on a chessboard. When masters and beginners were shown chessboards for only five seconds, the masters were able to remember virtually all the pieces perfectly, whereas beginners were only able to remember around four pieces. The difference was striking; the chess masters were far better than the beginners.

But here is the interesting part. To see whether this difference was due to a generally superior memory of the masters, the experiment was repeated with a slight tweak. Instead of showing the participants chessboards from actual games, they showed them boards of randomly arranged pieces. This time, there was no difference at all between the masters and the beginners. The masters were just as bad as the beginners–they could also only remember around four pieces. This showed that the masters’ remarkable ability to remember chess positions was not due to their memory being intrinsically better. Most likely, the explanation was that through years of playing chess the masters learned to see chess boards in meaningful ways, which allowed them to compress the amount they had to remember, something which they couldn’t do when the pieces were arranged randomly.

Another study that Greg told me about is even more relevant to Memrise. A team of neuroscientists looked at the differences between memory champions and ordinary individuals.[1]  What they found was that the brains of memory champions were structurally no different from those of ordinary individuals. The only difference was functional; when performing memory tasks, the champions showed increased activity in brain regions associated with spatial memory and navigation. This suggests that the difference between memory champions and ordinary people is merely in the way that they use their brain.

Most interestingly, when the memory champions were given three digit numbers and faces to remember, they did much better than the controls. But when they were given images of snowflakes, something which they weren’t practiced in, and to which there was no easy way to apply mnemonics, they did exactly the same as the controls. There was no difference between the performance of the memory champions and ordinary individuals.

What this all suggests is that memory champions don’t have intrinsically better memories than the rest of us. Their brains are the same, and when they are given tasks they haven’t spent years practicing, they do just as well as us. This lends support to the view that our ability to remember things is something that we can develop, and that the superpowers of memory champions may in fact be reachable for you and me.

So at least  when it comes to memory, it turns out that effort and practice play a much bigger role than one might think. If you’re interested in growing your mind and improving your memory, we can’t help but recommend that you try out Memrise!


[1] Matched for verbal IQ scores; the average was 111.

References Chase, W. G., and Simon, H. A. The mind’s eye in chess. In W. G. Chase, ed., Visual information processing, pp. 215–281. New York: Academic Press, 1973. De Groot, A. D. Thought and choice in chess. The  Hague: Mouton, 1965. De Groot, A. D. Perception and memory versus thought: Some old ideas and recent findings. In B. Kleimnuntz (Ed.) Problem solving. New York: Wiley, 1966. Maguire EA, Valentine ER, Wilding JM, Kapur N. Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory.. Nat Neurosci, 6(1), 90 – 95, 2003.


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