Trying out the 'super memorisers' test

A Cambridge study has devised a test to find those with exceptional memory
16 May 2023

Interview with 

Jon Simons, University of Cambridge


A brain sparking with electricity.


Scientists at the University of Cambridge have recently launched a search to find people who have exceptional memory, as they attempt to understand why some people are much better at remembering than others. Jon Simons is the man behind the project - which involves a series of online tests. Our own Will Tingle took the plunge on behalf of the Naked Scientists.

Will - Okay, we have been sent very kindly a memory test by John Simons and his team looking out for super memorisers. I don't think he's going to find one today. So let's start this challenge. What we have is several boxes appearing on the screen. They're going to give me symbols jumping out of each of these boxes individually and then I've got to tell them which symbol belongs in which box. That should be fairly straightforward, no? <Laugh>. Oh good. There are three lifelines. Good, good, good, good, good.

<Dinging noises followed by a buzzer>

Will - Interesting. Okay, got an eight on that. That was not awful. Now we've got a four by four grid of tiles and they're going to have flash and I've got to remember the sequence. Kinda like Bop It. I played Bop It. I can smash this.

<Ticking noises>

Will - My god, we're flying.

<Buzzer Noise>

Will - Okay. Another eight. Another eight. Hmm. That didn't feel great. I feel like I've let bop it down. What else have we got? A sequence of numbers, appearing one at a time. We've got to recall them. This should be, this should be my bag here.

<Several dings>

Will - This is going well. This is going well.

<Buzzer noise>

Will -  I spoke too soon. Oh, we've tapped out there at 10. That was good though. That felt better. And that's, thanks for playing. I honestly don't know how to feel about that, but I do know one person who might, so I'm going to take my scores over to Jon Simons, one of the leaders on this study and find out how I did.

Jon - So I think that puts you, I mean, we'll obviously have to look at the data in more detail, but I would think that that probably puts you at quite a high level of performance for many of these sorts of tests. You know, there's a great deal of variability just in the normal population most people get around sort of seven or so plus or minus, you know, two or three. So I think, you know, that the level of performance that you've, you've achieved there is probably putting you sort of in the top half I would say.

Will - But that pales insignificance to the sorts of levels of people that you are hoping to find.

Jon - Yes. So the people that we're hoping to work with, who really do have exceptional levels of memory, some of them will be getting 15 to 20. But we have had some people take part in the test so far who've scored above 25 and someone I think approaching 30, that's people who, if you can imagine a sort of distribution of performance in the normal population, they are way up towards one side of that scale.

Will - When I was doing it, it felt like it was exercising perhaps more my short-term memory. Is that the case? Is that the part of the brain that you are hoping to have a look at?

Jon - Well, there are different aspects to memory that we're interested in. So one aspect is short-term memory, we're also interested in long-term memory. And one of the things we want to find with this big new study is to try to find out how specific some of these abilities are. So for example, one of the tasks that you will done would've been remembering digits for example. So if someone can remember lots of those digits, does it generalise to remembering words or remembering faces for example. Over that relatively short term period, does that then generalised to longer term memory? So memory that might last months or even years perhaps. And also does it generalise to people's everyday lives? So it may be that people have some sort of a strategy that enables them to do well at remembering a set of digits, for example. Does that generalise to their ability to remember their experiences that they've had in their lives better? Does it generalise to their ability to remember a shopping list or to remember to perform a particular task to at a particular time, for example, that kind of more everyday life types of memory. And, what's underlying them? So are there particular strategies perhaps, that these super memorisers use to boost their memory abilities? Perhaps they're using strategies that they've developed themselves, perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps they have learned about some strategies that can be useful and perhaps have been practicing those and, and utilising those to enable them to boost their memory abilities to these exceptional levels.

Will - Wow. We might just find out a little bit about that later on in the show. <laugh>, that's a little teaser for you there, but another facet of the study is you're looking for a link between exceptional memory and neurodivergent conditions such as autism. What do you think the link is there?

Jon - There's certainly quite a bit of evidence that some autistic people have. What has been termed savant-like abilities. There is some particular cognitive function, whatever it might be, that seems to be at an exceptional level and in some of those people that can include memory. So that's one aspect of what we're trying to look at. But we are really interested in anyone who thinks they might be a super memoriser, someone with an exceptional memory, to try out our memory tests and then we can try to understand is this something that is seen throughout the population in autistic people and in others, or is it something that perhaps is disproportionately evident in autistic people or whatever.

Will - Where do you plan on going with this sort of information once you've got this and, and perhaps you get a good idea of what you think provides us with a good short or long-term memory? What's the next step after that?

Jon - Well, as part of the study as well as trying to understand the strategies and the sort of cognitive aspects if you like, of what people are doing, we're also going to be asking people to take part in a brain scan. And one of the things we're looking at there is whether the brains of people who have exceptional memory, whether they show differences perhaps in the structure of the brain, certain areas of the brain that might be structured differently or connected differently, or perhaps just that these areas might just function in a slightly different way. Perhaps they function more efficiently or show greater activity or something. And so that's something that can then be incredibly informative to trying to understand the cognitive neuroscience, if you like, of memory. What's the link between the brain and memory function? And this can help us to understand how memory works and if there are strategies that can boost memory or if there are certain brain regions that are really important here, then that can potentially help us to design targeted therapies and interventions perhaps that can then help the people who we tend to work with more often, actually, of course, which is people with memory impairments. So this is people whose memories unfortunately are not exceptional you know, in terms of high levels of performance. People who maybe have memory deficits due to dementia or brain injury for example. Those are the people we spend a lot of time working with and trying to help. And I think by looking at people sort of at the other end of the scale, the very high level of, of the scale and understanding how their memories perform so well, that can help us to help those people hopefully who suffer with impairments to their memories.


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