David G. Wittels
One day in 1923 a physician friend invited Samuel
Renshaw, the trail-blazing psychologist, to a Rotary Club luncheon in
Kalamazoo, Michigan. The invitation was not motivated solely
good fellowship. The friend also hoped to show Renshaw
which would put the cocky young man in his place.
had not yet done any of his revolutionary work on eyesight.
did not even have the academic credits required to admit him to the
Ohio State University faculty, and was teaching at a normal school
while working for his Ph.D. But he already was convinced that
even ordinary people possessed powers greater powers than they
suspected, and that his specialty, experimental psychology, could find
keys to unlock them -- an interesting theory Renshaw had preached until
his friends were bored. "All right, Sam," snapped the
"I'll just bet you ten dollars that we'll see a performance which you
can't reproduce or even explain."
What they saw was an
exhibition by a professional mental wizard, whose crowning
demonstration was to memorize fifty-two cards. A Rotary Club committee
shuffled a new deck and wrote down the order of the cards while the
expert was out of the room. He returned, studied the deck and
handed it back. Then, while the committee checked his
against its list, he rattle off the cards, naming suits as well as
denominations, without a single error. The audience gasped and
applauded. There was no possibility of sleight of hand or any other
trickery; it indubitably was a feat of memory.
Renshaw, however, was not impressed. "I'll take that bet," he
whispered. "Furthermore, I'll guarantee to teach a whole class to do
the same thing."
Ten dollars was a lot of money to him in
those days, but, in addition to the challenge, he saw a chance to add
further scientific proof to his theory. It turned out to be a historic
experiment. However, since it has been written up only in technical
papers, in a jargon virtually incomprehensible to laymen, the public
has never heard of it.
Renshaw won the bet. He took fifty
students in his psychology class at Western Michigan College of
Education, and within thirteen short lessons taught every one of them
to duplicate the memory expert's prize trick.
that anyone can learn to do that trick and, through it, help develop a
better memory for more useful matters. He argues that there
such thing as an inherently "bad memory." He declares that "the man who
says he has a poor memory exposes himself as never having tried hard
enough, and of not really having the desire to develop a good memory."
Renshaw insists that any normal person who wants to earnestly enough
and uses proper methods can become a memory wizard. Ten years after the
card experiment, he trained several students to surpass world records
held by a man credited with being the greatest lightning calculator and
rapid memorizer of his era. But that's getting ahead of the story.
The fifty-two-card trick, the training for which will be described in
detail later, is more than just a trick . It involves
way of remembering. It is nothing like the highly touted and
commercially taught memory systems. Most psychologists now believe that
such systems do not improve the basic memory powers, and often weaken
The method Renshaw made his students learn -- or
rather, discover for themselves -- is based partly on the theory that
all of us are inherently smarter than we think we are. There are no
magic pills. The method requires diligent practice and an open mind.
Yet it is basically so simple that, paradoxically, it is rather hard to
explain to sophisticated readers. That is because most people -- and
the better read and more intelligent ones are the most likely to be
guilty of this -- have been conditioned to believe that all training of
the mind or any function must involve elaborate abracadabra.
The concept of letting go and letting nature take its course is
therefore a hard one for most adults to swallow. It is easier for
children, unspoiled by exposure to the artificial complexities of
civilized life. To make a layman's check on Renshaw's theory, this
writer tried the card trick on his own son, Michael. Though handicapped
by lack of familiarity with the suits, after five twenty-minutes
sessions the eight-year-old child was able to memorize twenty cards in
the same time it took the adult memory expert in Kalamazoo to do the
Psychologists lately have proved what
teachers, editors and writers have known for a long time: that the best
way to explain anything is by illustrative examples. Michael, however,
is too young to explain what goes on in his mind when he does the
memory trick. This writer tried to get illustrative examples from
adults with extraordinary memory powers. But most possessors of
phenomenal memories, either because they honestly are not aware of how
they do it or because they are too cagey to give away secrets, are not
very helpful. At last, however, I found a man who was willing and able
to furnish enlightening clues.
He is a lawyer, Joseph
Sharfsin, former city solicitor for Philadelphia, who for years has
been baffling acquaintances with an amazing parlor trick. It is ideal
for illustrating Renshaw's theory because, while on the surface it
seems different, the psychological explanation is practically identical
with that for the fifty-two-card trick. Sharfsin begins by
some member of the party -- let's call him the middleman -- write the
numbers from 1 to 25 on one sheet of paper, and then on another. The
middleman does not act as a stooge, and may even be someone who has bet
that Sharfsin can't do the trick.
The middleman points to
a guest and says, for example, "You're Number Eight. Give me a word."
Sharfsin stipulates that the word must be a noun; it may be anything
from a simple noun like "chair" to the most esoteric term. When a word
is given, the middleman writes it opposite that number on one of the
two sheets. He may skip up and down the lists of numbers, and from one
sheet to the other. He must, however, announce on which sheet he is
writing the word.
Sharfsin listens to all this. He sits
where he can't possibly glimpse any of the writing. But when both
sheets have words opposite all the numbers, he recites all the words in
their numerical order. Or, if requested, he starts with the word
opposite No. 25 on the second sheet and works backward to No. 1 on the
first sheet. Or he will call them off in almost any scrambled
order demanded. Here's how he says he does it: "Let's suppose that the
first number called is Number Eight, that that person gives the word
'chair.' I merely listen to him say 'chair.' I try not to think of
anything else, so as to give the word a chance to sink in. I repeat to
myself, 'Chair.' At the same time I have a sort of mental image of two
columns of twenty-five numbers each. It isn't an exact image; it is
more a sort of awareness that there are a certain number of spaces to
be filled on the left-hand sheet and on the right-hand sheet. The word
'chair' slips in alongside Number Eight on the left-hand side. It is
almost as if something went 'click' in a machine. And so on up and down
both columns. I can almost feel a physical impression on my brain each
time I absorb a word. Then, when I want to repeat the lists, all I need
to do is to think of the number, left-hand sheet or right-hand sheet,
and the word pops out."
Most people to whom he has made
this explanation have given him "Oh, yeah?" looks or bluntly accused
him of lying. But this vague-sounding analysis happens to be an almost
perfect illustration of the Renshaw theory. It is almost as if Renshaw
or a colleague had coached him. But Sharfsin worked out the knack for
himself. Renshaw had his students do much the same thing with the
Sharfsin first tackled his memory
stunt when he was an adolescent in a small town in South Carolina. He
aspired someday to compete with the smart people in the big cities up
North, but worried that he might be too dumb. When his older brother
came home from France after World War I and told him of a Frenchman who
could remember any twenty-five words mentioned to him, young Joe
decided such an exercise would be just the thing for his mental
muscles. To make sure, he upped the load to fifty words. Knowing
nothing of memory systems or mnemonic devices, he tackled the problem
naively and directly, trying to learn to remember simply by trying to
remember. He thought that smart people probably knew better ways, but,
according to Renshaw, he chose the only way that really works.
Renshaw gave his students no explanation of how to do the
fifty-two-card trick. He merely told them that they were to try to
memorize a deck of cards, that it could be done, and that when they
caught on to the method, they would find it surprisingly easy. The only
coaching he gave them was to warn them not to get overanxious or
The students worked in pairs, with one acting as
observer while the other practiced. The observer shuffled the deck,
then handed it to the practicer, who held it face down in his left
hand. Every three seconds the practicer turned the top card up on the
table and spoke its name aloud. As soon as the pack was finished, he
turned his back and began calling out the cards as nearly in order as
he could remember them.
If the practicer got confused, he
was supposed to go ahead anyway, calling out whatever cards came to
mind, until he recited what seemed like fifty-two cards to
Then, after the observer told him how many he had got right, the
practicer went through the deck again, and again tried to recite the
cards from memory. This went on for twenty minutes, because that was
how long the memory wizard studied the deck. The order of the cards was
not changed during a session, but at each new sitting, the cards were
reshuffled. There were three sessions a week.
students got the knack in one lesson. Two more caught on in the second
session, seven others did it in the third sitting, and at the end of
six periods thirty-eight of the students could do it. Only one woman
required as many as thirteen sessions before she could duplicate the
memory wizard's prize trick.
All had been given the Army
alpha test of intelligence. Their IQ's ranged from 60-69, which is
quite low, to 170-179, which is very high. The three who had the
highest IQ's caught on within four lessons, but so did the man with the
lowest IQ of the group. In other words, degree of
has little to do with basic memory power.
The ages ranged
from twenty to thirty-four. The woman who took the longest to learn the
trick was the oldest of the group. This would seem to bear out the
adage that "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," but, according to
Renshaw, that is a misapprehension. It would be easier, he says, to
teach sound bridge to a sixty-year-old man who had never tried the game
than to a twenty-five-year-old who had played poor bridge for several
years. It isn't age which inhibits learning, but the bad habits
acquired along the way.
This is nicely demonstrated by
the thirty-four-year-old woman's own report on her progress, which also
helps to illustrate how to learn this way of remembering. "In my first
nine sittings," she wrote, "I worked as hard as I could, trying out
various mnemonic systems ... but my scores were, on those nine days,
only eight, four, seven, eleven, fourteen, nine, twenty, fifteen and
fifteen 'rights.' I decided on the ninth day that these systems were
hindering rather than helping me, so I abandoned them.'
An earnest, intelligent woman, she had studied various memory courses
and had got the mnemonic devices from them. One supposed short cut was
to think of the kings as fathers, queens as mothers and the jacks as
older brothers, followed by groups of children of various ages up to
ten. Another was to imagine the heart cards as so many lovers, the
diamonds as rich men, the clubs as soldiers and the spades as laborers.
When she finally gave these up, she said, "I simply tried to look
carefully at each card while I called out its name. On the ninth day I
noticed no improvement, but my later scores tell the story. For the
tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth days they were twenty-one,
fifty, thirty, and at last fifty-two. There was one day when the
learning in some way just seemed to come all at once."
The first important clue lies in her remark, "I simply tried to look
carefully at each card while I called out its name." By doing that she
cleared the track and allowed her native memory power to work
unhampered. She then was able to make use of a phenomenon of memory
which is exemplified by the way in which we remember melodies. Most of
us can sing, hum or whistle whole melodies, even if we cannot isolate
the individual notes. How, then, do we remember those melodies? The
underlying principle is exactly the same as in the apparently
extraordinary memory tricks. More about that later.
second important clue is in Sharfsin's statement that he has "a sort of
mental image of two columns of twenty-five numbers. It isn't an exact
image; it is more a sort of awareness that there are a certain number
of spaces to be filled." This awareness is so strong and so integral a
part of the trick that when all but a few numbers have been filled, he
can break in and announce which numbers have no words opposite them.
Therein lies the main key not only to these tricks but to all feats of
memory. It is what the so-called Gestalt school of psychology, to which
Renshaw and most of modern psychology are heavily indebted, calls
"structuring." That simply means creating a pattern. We remember things
best by remembering their over-all pattern rather than their individual
parts. Therefore, according to that theory, the best way to memorize
something is first to recognize or create a pattern, or "structure,"
The structure, of course, varies according to the
subject. The parlor tricks require only recognition of very simple
patterns. A feat such as James A. Farley's ability to recall the names
and faces of thousands of people, as well as personal details and the
circumstances under which he met them, naturally involves more
building. But the basic principle is the same.
Sharfsin's trick, the framework was created by the constant awareness
of the two rows of twenty-five consecutive numbers each. The
schoolteacher caught on to the card trick when she subconsciously began
to rely on the simple fact that there were fifty-two cards in the deck.
A sequence of numbers -- in this case from 1 to 52 -- is in itself a
structure such as memory requires. However, it is not necessary to
think of an actual number, such as "No. 24," in order to evoke the word
or card attached to it. Sometimes trying to think of the actual number
as a clue may even throw the memorizer off stride. The linking is more
with a place or space in the over-all structure than with literal
Only trained musicians consciously remember all
the notes in a melody. Most of us make no conscious effort to remember
individual notes. We don't even think of how many notes the melody
contains. All we do is listen and repeat it, mentally or aloud. Yet
afterward, hearing or thinking of one part of the melody can re-create
the whole melody, and the individual notes fall into place as if by
magic. We don't need to count to twenty-four, for instance, to recall
that a certain note comes in at that point. The so-called subcounscious
has taken care of the counting, in a sort of shorthand of its own.
All this has a very direct bearing on how to develop a better memory
for useful matters. The best way to remember a telephone number, for
instance, is merely to take a good look at it or listen to it carefully
when someone says it, and then repeat it. But it is imperative to look
at or listen to the number as a whole; to think of it as Main72945, and
not as Main-7-2-9-4-5, or as Main-7-29-45. Grasping it as a whole is a
form of elementary structuring. It creates a simple mental pattern by
which memory is able to reconstruct the number.
says Renshaw, "try to remember a telephone number, address or historic
date by wrapping it up in a rhyme or tying it up to mnemonic code."
Psychologists like to illustrate the dangers of such memory crutches by
citing the story of the schoolboy who was taught the following couplet:
In Fourteen Hundred
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
But one day when the teacher asked for the date of the discovery of
America, the boy raised his hand and proudly said, "Fourteen
ninety-three." When the teacher said that was wrong, he indignantly
In Fourteen Hundred
Columbus sailed the dark blue
Some memory systems involve the use of codes, such as this
B L A C
M I T H
0 1 2
5 6 7
The idea is to translate telephone and street numbers into sentences
made up of words beginnig with letters obtained from the code. For
instance the street number 3265 would become CMAS, out of which could be
created a sentence such as "Caroline met Alec Smith." The theory is
that such sentences are easier to remember than numbers. But the
complications have increased the chances for error. The sentence might
pop out of memory as "Caroline liked Alec Smith," which would put the
memorizer five blocks away from his target.
Renshaw points out, merely attempt to do structuring the hard way. They
create complicated rococo structures with false fronts, when a simple
structure, inherent in the material, is all that memory requires.
The kind of structuring needed for remembering future errands, such as
getting to the bank before closing time, is also quite simple, Renshaw
says. Instead of merely thinking disconnectedly something like "bank
... three o'clock ... I must," fix the errand in your mind by including
"why" you've got to go to the bank. "I've got to go to the bank before
three o'clock to get three hundred dollars for the down payment on
Mary's fur coat." That creates a structure, and when such a structure
is set up, you won't forget the errand unless, of course, you
subconsciously really would rather not remember it.
some people it might also be helpful to set up a mental image of the
entrance to the bank, with themselves going into it. Some memories are
helped most by visual imagery, some by words, and some get their best
clues from what psychologists call the kinesthetic sense, which might
loosely be translated as "muscle-joint-tendon" sense. This means
remembering through recalling action: what you did, how you stood, how
you stood, how you reacted physically. For instance to fix in the mind
that "c'est une plume" means "this is a pen," it is helpful to pick up
a pen while saying or reading the French phrase.
to remember names is also quite simple, according to Renshaw. "Much of
the inability to recall a name," he says, "reduces to failure to
concentrate on learning it when it was first encountered. You probably
were too busy sizing up the person or thinking of what you were going
to say, to let the name sink in."
Therefore, the first
step he suggests is to try to think of nothing else at the instant of
hearing the name. The structuring process for names is the same as with
telephone numbers. It consists of grasping the name as a whole --
something like "JohnRSmith," though not necessarily run together quite
that closely. The final step is to repeat the name, mentally or aloud.
If the name is to be remembered for a long time, repeat it in a few
weeks. Then, under normal circumstances, the name will stick in your
The simplicity of this method is the
major reason that -- except for people who unconsciously have
discovered it for themselves -- it is virtually unknown outside the
psychological laboratories. It does not lend itself to high-priced
Most such courses are based on
impressively involved variations and elaborations of the old
association theory in psychology. That theory held that
worked somewhat like a string of firecrackers, with one idea setting
off another until a chain reaction was completed. That concept had
quite a vogue for a long time, but was rejected by psychologists of the
Gestalt school and followers of John Dewey's "motor theory." By
numerous highly technical laboratory experiments, some of which Renshaw
developed, that concept seems to have been pretty well demolished. But
most memory courses still teach that the way to remember names is to
associate them with familiar things.
confusions inherent in such systems are obvious. Even when they seems
to work, Renshaw says, they work only to the extent that they prod the
buywer into practicing and exercising his memory. "Practically any
exercises will somewhat strengthen some of your muscles, but the wrong
kind may also injure them or make you muscle-bound."
Renshaw's theory that almost anyone can develop an extraordinary memory
was put to its stiffest test by Dr. Salo Finkelstein, possessor of the
most prodigious memory ever checked under modern scientific conditions.
Finkelstein, a high-strung, cigar-chewing Polish accountant, was
examined by the American Psychological Association when he came to this
country in 1932 for a lecture tour. In cautious scientific jargon, the
association pronounced him a genius in the memory department.
Finkelstein could multiply figures of six digits and add columns
totaling billions at a glance. He remembered logarithms to seven
decimal places, could recite more than 1000 dates, and could carry pi
-- usually stated as 3.1416 -- to 300 decimal places. One of his prize
tricks was to draw a large square on the blackboard, divide it into 100
small squares, and ask the audience to give him numbers to put in those
squares. When finished, he would turn his back to the blackboard and
recite the numbers in almost any order requested.
Finkelstein's exhibition tour brought him to Ohio State in April, 1934,
Renshaw grabbed him and kept him there for a year and a half. Renshaw's
purpose was to prove that: (a) even a genius like Finkelstein could be
improved by scientific training, and that (b) even nongeniuses could
learn to do as well or better, at least in some respects.
Renshaw put Finkelstein and several dozen students to work on a
tachistoscope -- the glorified magic lantern with which he later
created reading wizards, worked out the wartime Renshaw Recognition
System for spotting aircraft, and developed a new -- though still
controversial -- technique for improving eyesight. This may sound as if
Renshaw is hipped on the subject of the tachistoscope. But he used it
only because it was a handy tool for the kind of experiments he had in
mind. He does not recommend it as a way for acquiring an all-around
Finkelstein believed that he did his feats
mostly through association. He told Renshaw that he memorized the
thirteen-digit number 5714923937415 by breaking it up thus: 57-1492
(Christopher Columbus)-39.37 (inches in a meter)-415 (the number on the
door of Renshaw's office). But Renshaw suspected that either
Finkelstein was kidding himself, or, if he did partly rely on such
association, it was interfering with full operation of his memory
power. The speed of the tachistoscope allowed no time for such
shenanigans. By exposing digits on the screen for only fleeting
flashes, it forced observers to grasp the numbers as wholes, or at
least in large groups -- a form of structuring.
Finkelstein arrived at Ohio State he could memorize a twenty-one-digit
number in nine seconds. That was, as far as researchers knew, a world
record. It is doubtful whether the average untrained person could do it
in three minutes; and most people, like this writer, would get dizzy
merely trying. But after practice on the tachistoscope, Finkelstein
memorized a number such as 746395128496574897412 in about three seconds.
Finkelstein's record for fifteen digits was 2.54 seconds. In a few
weeks Renshaw trained a dozen students to beat that. Goaded,
Finkelstein practiced until his time was cut to 1.47. That stood until,
a few years after Finkelstein left, Howard Wright, a Negro student, did
it in 1.45 seconds. Still later another student memorized sixteen
digits in 1.08 seconds. Renshaw expects that record to be broken too.
Finkelstein learned to remember nine-digit numbers in one
three-hundredth of a second, which is twelve times as fast as the wink
of a human eye. Today there are two graduate students in Renshaw's
laboratories, Robert L. Maurer and Chester Pheiffer, who have learned
to grasp nine digits -- such as 849218536 -- in the fantastically
fractional time of one two-thousandth of a second. This writer saw them
do it. Both are very bright young men, but they had never shown any
evidence of such extraordinary memory powers. Renshaw believes they
will set even more amazing records.
The question naturally
arises at this point as to why memory researchers confine their
experiments to card tricks and useless strings of numbers. They do it
because, to ferret out the basic clues on how memory works, they must
avoid extraneous factors as far as possible. Problems involving people
-- or stories, articles, poems or business data -- would intrude
emotional reactions which would confuse the evidence. Numbers and
playing cards, however, have little or no extraneous meaning. In fact,
psychologists call them "nonsense material," which is exactly what they
want. From such experiments have come important discoveries which have
direct application to all kinds of practical problems.
tackling a business report or a textbook, for instance, these
psychologists advise glancing through it all the way to the end before
studying it paragraph by paragraph. This sets up a framework. After
such a preliminary run-through, the individual facts will slip into
place much more easily and the whole subject will be better understood
For problems such as remembering names,
plus faces, plus a dozen or so other facts about their owners, the
structuring gets somewhat more involved. According to the structuring
theory, the way to remember such things is to make a sort of story out
of them. Selection of a starting point depends largely upon your
personal interests. It might be the person's appearance, his
occupation, odd circumstances of the meeting, whether you strongly
liked or disliked him. If the person is of the opposite sex, the major
point might be the degree of physical attraction.
Clothes-conscious women are good examples of how a major point of
interest builds a story structure as an aid to memory. Such a woman
usually can, after only a quick glance, describe in minute detail what
another woman wore. But further, she will remember the strange woman's
figure -- mostly by how the clothes fitted it. She will remember the
face and hair -- mostly by whether the costume was becoming to those
features. And if there are no factors which made an even greater
impression, she will remember where and when she met the woman largely
by whether that costume was suitable to the occasion.
Former Postmaster General Farley has never publicly explained how he
could remember, in great and exact detail, thousands of introductions.
He probably is not consciously aware of how he did it. But
psychologists of the school to which Renshaw belongs believe he did it
(a) by listening very carefully, so that the details had a chance to
sink into his mind, and (b) by creating story structures based on the
matter which interested him most -- votes.
a man he met in the La Salle Street Station in Chicago would to him be
a man who had delivered 847 votes in a certain ward in the last
election. The man's face and appearance could become part of the vote
story if Farley wondered, while looking at him, whether he controlled
those votes by force of personality, impressive front or back-room
finagling. He further could fix the man in his memory by linking him
with whether those votes were mostly Irish, Italian, Jewish,
bluestocking or slum votes. If the man had three children and a
rheumatic wife, Farley could plant that in his memory by wondering --
not necessarily in those words, and without callousness -- how those
factors might affect that man's vote-getting ability when the next
election rolled around.
That kind of structuring makes a
set of otherwise unrelated facts stick in memory the way a joke does.
Men with vast funds of stories rarely remember them verbatim; what they
file away are the points and outlines -- or structures -- of the
stories. Anything which reminds them of the tag line of a joke will
enable them to reconstruct the whole story.
that not only can virtually everyone develop an excellent memory by
such methods but that most people, if they were willing to work really
hard at it, could become mental wizards. The controlling factor, he
argues, is desire. He believes that the main explanation for geniuses
such as the fabulous Doctor Finkelstein is simply a terrific desire to
do such feats.
Finkelstein, for instance, was far from a
genius outside his specialty. During the period when Renshaw knew him,
he made his living mostly from occasional lectures. To keep him close
to the laboratory, Renshaw arranged appearances for him in and around
Columbus. One morning, after having collected close to $500 the
previous night, Finkelstein embarrassedly asked Renshaw to lend him ten
dollars. It developed that after the lecture he had gone to a big crap
game near Columbus. He figured that, with his lightning ability to
calculate percentages, he ought to be able to beat the stupid sort of
creatures who hung around crap games. The professionals promptly took
him to the cleaner's. The answer could be crooked dice, but this sort
of thing happened often enough to make it seem more likely that the
professionals, making their living that way, had learned to figure dice
problems faster than the wizard whose major interest in numbers was
Then there was a test Renshaw made on
Finkelstein one day. "I gave him a problem concerning how much it would
cost to paint a room," Renshaw explains. "I told him the area of the
room, the amount of window space to be deducted, how much paint it took
to cover a square foot, and the cost of the paint per gallon.
Finkelstein, who could do astronomical calculus in his head, had almost
as much trouble with this simple problem as a high-school boy would. He
just wasn't interested enough in such matters."
Background courtesy of Eos Development