Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

You're Not as Smart as You Could Be

by David G. Wittels


Part 1

  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 by good fellowship.  The friend also hoped to show Renshaw something which would put the cocky young man in his place.

  Renshaw had not yet done any of his revolutionary work on eyesight.  He 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 physician; "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 recitation 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.

  He claims that anyone can learn to do that trick and, through it, help develop a better memory for more useful matters.  He argues that there is no 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 learning a 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 them.

  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 complete deck.

  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 having 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 fifty-two-card trick.

  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 "press."

  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 him.  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.

  Two 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 intelligence 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.

 The 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," for it.

  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.

  In 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 numbers.

  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.

  "Never," 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 and Ninety-two
     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 recited:

      In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-three
     Columbus sailed the dark blue sea

  Some memory systems involve the use of codes, such as this one:

     B   L  A  C  K   S   M   I   T   H
     0   1   2  3   4   5    6   7  8    9

  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.

  Such systems, 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.

  For 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.

  Learning 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 memory indefinitely.

  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 memory courses.

  Most such courses are based on impressively involved variations and elaborations of the old association theory in psychology.  That theory held that memory 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.

  The potential 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.

  When 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 and his tachistoscope   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 good memory.

  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.

  When 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.

  In 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 and remembered.

  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.

  For instance, 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.

  Renshaw believes 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 academic.

  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."

Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3

Background courtesy of Eos Development