It’s the reason you need a grocery list.
George Armitage Miller’s famous theory states that unassisted, the average person can store seven to nine items in their short-term memory. This sounds reasonable to me and anyone else who has ever been on a Target run, but it seems like utter nonsense to Todd Sampson.
You see Sampson is fresh off of competing in the World Memory Championships; a competition where he memorized the order of a shuffled deck of 52 playing cards in a mere 10 minutes.
How can we explain this apparent anomaly? What makes Sampson so adept at storing meaningless info and ignoring Miller’s law?
In a word- training.
It turns out that much like the scope of government, our brains are capable of continuous growth over the course of our lifetimes. Unlike D.C. however, the growth in our brains leads to cognitive upticks and improvements. Brain exercise can re-map, fine-tune and hone our grey matter. Perhaps most exciting, a very small investment of training time can elicit some rather large changes.
Sampson isn’t what you’d think. He’s not some super-nerd from MIT who speaks fluent Klingon, collects bitcoin and has never kissed a girl. He’s an intelligent guy, no doubt, but largely a well-rounded one who until quite recently was stuck on seven to nine just like you.
Under the guidance of Dr. Michael Merzenich, Sampson spent roughly an hour a day over three months “Hacking His Brain” for a science channel television show. His cranial turbo-charging included some computer-based testing, but also took the form of some new experiences. It turns out that something as random as learning to juggle, or a similar new task that requires concentration, can help us burn new synaptic pathways and build us up. This phenomena falls under the umbrella concept of neuroplasticity.
The results of his training were nothing short of amazing as Sampson significantly raised his scores on a series of neurological and behavioral tests. The implication of this (and neuroplasticity itself) is important. It implies that not only are our muscles or physical fitness a function of our training and diligence but so too are our brains. This may be the key to stopping or reversing brain disorders and definitely has impacts to cognitive development as we age.
It also means that the inverse is also true. If we continually reinforce set pathways in our brains by maintaining patterns and routines in our lives, we are stifling growth. Stagnation is the enemy. Staying at a dead end job, biding your time until you can find time to pursue your dream may be robbing you of the growth you need to be successful when you finally do.
The implication is clear. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. If you aren’t honing your craft, investing in growth and getting out of your comfort zone, the step you are taking is backward.