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December 22, 2009

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A great memory not as easy as pi

EVER wonder how some people can perform amazing feats of memory?

The answer: Practice, practice, practice.

East China Normal University scientists found that memory is built by repeated training - not by endowment, as most people believe.

The researchers studied how a Guinness World Record-maker memorized the decimal representation of pi - the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter - to 67,890 decimal places and compared him with other people with superior memories.

They came to the conclusion that method and perseverance are the key to memory enhancement.

The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

"People used to think that people with superior memories must have superior short-term memory, as well as long-term memory, for large quantities of figures," said Hu Yi, the main researcher.

"Our study found no evidence for superior basic memory capacity, but rather evidence for extended intense practice and sustained effort to attain a challenging goal."

They studied Lu Chao, a 26-year-old graduate at a Chinese university. Lu set a Guinness record in 2005 by memorizing 67,890 decimal places of pi, with only one year of intensive preparation.

The researchers gave him a test in which a computer program showed him digits at a fixed rate of one per second.

Lu could accurately memorize only 10 digits. That's in the normal range. But in another test, in which participants controlled the rate, Lu's recall increased to 20.

"Like other people with superior memories, Lu has used encoding strategies, where they convert pairs of digits into meaningful words," Hu said. For example, a person can turn "14" into "rose," making a connection between February 14 and Valentine's Day.

Lu's experience echoed the research findings.

Lu had ordinary memory and bad scores before high school. He strove to strengthen his memory in his third year of high school.

He spent five hours a day reciting the decimals of pi in his last year of college.

Fighting the boredom, Lu even suffered insomnia and anxiety. But he persevered, sticking insistently to his schedule for a year.

"Many books have introduced good memory skills. But few have kept trying with the methods. That explains why most people cannot attain superior memories," Hu said.


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