When I first set out to train my memory, the prospect of learning these elaborate techniques seemed preposterously daunting. One of my first steps was to dive into the scientific literature for help. One name kept popping up: K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University and the author of an article titled “Exceptional Memorizers: Made, Not Born.”
Ericsson laid the foundation for what’s known as Skilled Memory Theory, which explains how and why our memories can be improved, within limits. In 1978, he and a fellow psychologist named Bill Chase conducted what became a classic experiment on a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate student, who was immortalized as S.F. in the literature. Chase and Ericsson paid S.F. to spend several hours a week in their lab taking a simple memory test again and again. S.F. sat in a chair and tried to remember as many numbers as possible as they were read off at the rate of one per second. At the outset, he could hold only about seven digits at a time in his head. When the experiment wrapped up — two years and 250 mind-numbing hours later — S.F. had increased his ability to remember numbers by a factor of 10.
When I called Ericsson and told him that I was trying to train my memory, he said he wanted to make me his research subject. We struck a deal. I would give him the records of my training, which might prove useful for his research. In return, he and his graduate students would analyze the data in search of how I might perform better. Ericsson encouraged me to think of enhancing my memory in the same way I would think about improving any other skill, like learning to play an instrument. My first assignment was to begin collecting architecture. Before I could embark on any serious degree of memory training, I first needed a stockpile of palaces at my disposal. I revisited the homes of old friends and took walks through famous museums, and I built entirely new, fantastical structures in my imagination. And then I carved each building up into cubbyholes for my memories.
Cooke kept me on a strict training regimen. Each morning, after drinking coffee but before reading the newspaper or showering or getting dressed, I sat at my desk for 10 to 15 minutes to work through a poem or memorize the names in an old yearbook. Rather than take a magazine or book along with me on the subway, I would whip out a page of random numbers or a deck of playing cards and try to commit it to memory. Strolls around the neighborhood became an excuse to memorize license plates. I began to pay a creepy amount of attention to name tags. I memorized my shopping lists. Whenever someone gave me a phone number, I installed it in a special memory palace. Over the next several months, while I built a veritable metropolis of memory palaces and stocked them with strange and colorful images, Ericsson kept tabs on my development. When I got stuck, I would call him for advice, and he would inevitably send me scurrying for some journal article that he promised would help me understand my shortcomings. At one point, not long after I started training, my memory stopped improving. No matter how much I practiced, I couldn’t memorize playing cards any faster than 1 every 10 seconds. I was stuck in a rut, and I couldn’t figure out why. “My card times have hit a plateau,” I lamented.
When people first learn to use a keyboard, they improve very quickly from sloppy single-finger pecking to careful two-handed typing, until eventually the fingers move effortlessly and the whole process becomes unconscious. At this point, most people’s typing skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it’s strange. We’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, and yet many people sit behind a keyboard for hours a day. So why don’t they just keeping getting better and better?
In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner tried to answer this question by describing the three stages of acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, making fewer major errors, and become more efficient. Finally we reach what Fitts and Posner called the autonomous phase, when we’re as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot. Most of the time that’s a good thing. The less we have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more we can concentrate on the stuff that really matters. You can actually see this phase shift take place in f.M.R.I.’s of subjects as they learn new tasks: the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active, and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the O.K. plateau.
Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,” Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” In other words, the best we can do is simply the best we can do. But Ericsson and his colleagues have found over and over again that with the right kind of effort, that’s rarely the case. They believe that Galton’s wall often has much less to do with our innate limits than with what we consider an acceptable level of performance. They’ve found that top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail. That’s what I needed to do if I was going to improve my memory.