The capacity and longevity of information storage techniques and devices appeared for quite many years to be limited. The short lifespan of hard-drive memory makes actually DVDs to be the most stable of such devices, however with an obvious volume limit for vast digital archives. Scientific research has put an end to the era of limited lifetime data storage with the 5D superman memory crystal, a data-storage method with a potential for stockpiling 360 terabytes of data that will most likely outlast the human race. But how about the human brain? Its longevity is definitely not a secret, but what about its capacity? How do we maximize the volume of our memory?
Human vs Tech, 1-0
Although it’s difficult to measure the exact storage capacity of our brains given the unknown size of a memory or the fact that some are forgotten and replaced or some involve more details than others, if we consider the about one billion neurons we possess and the 1000 connection each neuron forms, we can get an idea: the brain’s memory storage capacity is something close to around 2.5 petabytes (1 petabyte = 1024 terabytes or twice the size of the 10 billion photos on Facebook). Now, do we all have the same volume of memory storage capacity?
Why do we always have the feeling of forgetting something and how do we get passed that? Our short-term memory has a well defined limit of 7-9 items, unless you are a mental athlete and you’ve taken part in one of the yearly organized world memory championships. Also called mnemonists, these superlatives of memories, have the ability to remember and recall unusually long lists of data. Johannes Mallow, German memory sportsman for instance is able to memorize and recall 100 binary numbers in 5 minutes, 492 abstract images in 15 minutes, 132 historical dates in 5 minutes, 364 spoken numbers and the list continues. Have a look here at the full list of memory grand-masters because you’ll discover five from Austria and might get inspired to have your name on that list too.
How do I get my name on the list of memory world champions?
Unless your name is Clive Wearing and you have the world’s shortest memory of 7 seconds, becoming a grand-master at the memory world championship is very possible or very similar to becoming a London taxi driver who must memorize a complete map of the city including 25.000 streets and thousands of landmarks. Every cab driver in London had to pass “the Knowledge” exam in order to get a license. Surprisingly, what differentiates merely good chess players from those who are world-class is also the key for anyone who wants to become a world champion in memory sports: exercise and context or the Memory Palace technique. We don’t remember isolated things, we remember things in context. To understand better, try to recall what you were doing when the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001. Most likely, you remember even small details of that day.
How does it work?
“Photographic memory is a detestable myth” said Ed Cooke, Memory grandmaster, author and co-founder of Memrise
The secret behind remembering a lot of things is to create a space in the mind’s eye, that you are intimately familiar with and then start populating that visualized place with images representing whatever you want to remember. The palace is a metaphor, it can be your own room, the stations along the subway line U3, your parents’ house porch, or any other place you know very well. Studies show that this is the mechanism every memory master, London cab driver or chess players uses to increase their memory capacity. After taking a lot of walks throughout the city, taxi drivers are building their own map of London in their heads by transposing the places they see in the streets to their own familiar context. Similarly, the ability to memorize board positions is what indicates how good a chess player is. And that takes years of experience.
The human memory has an unlimited potential of storing data that has nothing to do with one’s level of intelligence. Time and dynamic challenges refine the brain or as Tony Buzan, founder or the world memory championship and inventor of Mind Mapping puts it: “the human brain is like a muscle: exercise it and it gets stronger”. His advice is actually to spend an hour a day, six days a week of memory training to succeed at a memory championship. What you need is determination and understanding the art and technique of memorizing.
If you want to go deeper into understanding how memory works, why and how you can train your brain, we recommend you the extraordinary book of Joshua Foer, “Moonwalking with Einstein – the Art and Science of remembering everything”.