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New York Times Sunday Magazine

The subject of Joshua Foer’s fascinating article, “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is developing one’s memory. The article has many memorable takeaways, which can perhaps be applied more broadly to anyone trying to acquire a new skill and get better at something.

The essence of Foer’s article is that exceptional memory is not some unique gift that we are born with; it is a set of skills or practices that we develop. Exceptional memory is “made, not born,” to quote the title of an academic paper that presents “Skilled Memory Theory.” Foer himself undertakes a rigorous training regimen to improve his memory so that he can recall, for instance, the order of a complete deck of cards. At some point in his training, he cannot memorize cards any faster through the same kind of practice. He learned that it was a problem common to a lot of learning, as some of the research on learning to increase one’s typing speed had shown. Foer had reached what he called the OK Plateau. The question is how to get beyond it.

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….Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability.

The OK plateau is what most people reach, even after considerable work to acquire a new skill. How do top performers push beyond the seemingly normal limit and become exceptional?

[Top performers] 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. … 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.

To say it another way, we can be comfortable with an average level of performance, but we have to make ourselves uncomfortable by inviting systematic failure to move from average to excellent.

One last thing Foer did to improve his ability to focus was to hack a pair of safety goggles:

I went to the hardware store and bought a pair of industrial-grade earmuffs and a pair of plastic laboratory safety goggles. I spray-painted them black and drilled a small eyehole through each lens. Henceforth I would always wear them to practice.

The article was adapted from Foer’s new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. You might also remember Foer as the founder of the fabulous Athanasius Kircher Society and the Atlas Obscura. He also organized last summer in Union Square in NY the building of “Sukkah City”, a set of temporary structures defined by religious ritual.

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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