Perfect Memory and Polymaths in the 21st Century

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects.
Excerpt from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long in “Time Enough For Love” by Robert A. Heinlein

I recently got a very interesting eMail with positive feedback about my book (thank you) and an interesting point of discussion: Are 21st century polymaths possible if you train your memory until it is perfect?

I thought about the scenario a little. To be creative, you need to know the topic. Learning comes first and there is no way to bypass it. But can you learn about a lot of different disciplines and contribute to all of these disciplines?

There are a lot of fictional characters which spring to mind if training oneself to a perfect memory and learning about a lot of different disciplines were possible, for example the “Fair Witnesses” in Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”, the Mentats in Herbert’s “Dune” Series, or Harris’ Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Interesting and powerful characters, but I doubt that it would possible to realize:

  1. While there are memory techniques (and the description of Lecter’s memory palace is a nice one), as far as I know memory is constructed. There is a lot of research on false memories (Loftus did some major works, if I’m not mistaken), so unless you are one of the very few people with a perfect memory, it will never be ‘perfect’.
  2. Many memory techniques are specific to the content (type). If you train your verbal memory, it will not improve your memory for numbers — and vice versa. I’m not sure about the place-metaphor or how well you can generalize other types of memory techniques, but this makes it hard to improve in general. I’m guessing that the person with the 130 decks of cards has a huge advantage when it comes to memorizing cards (and playing Black Jack might be a career move), but I wonder what happens if we replace the cards with, e.g., cards from the game SET or with other content. Is this really worth the months of training, if it is domain/content specific?
  3. If you could remember everything, how would you make sense out of the things you know (and store each second)? There is one case study of a person with a perfect memory and this person has a lot of memories he does not need/are boring. If the memory is selective (likely) in encoding and retrieval, it would still be very difficult to get a quick overview, which, e.g., an external representation can provide (e.g., quickly scanning through a list of ideas or using a mind map to externalize knowledge).
  4. Another problem is expertise, or what is meant by Polymath. Looking from the outside, from a layman’s perspective, many disciplines look easy and homogeneous. But once you dive into them, you see how diverse they are and how much there is to learn. Take for example the discipline of psychology. There are thousands of researchers working in this domain, on hundreds of phenomena in a lot of sub-disciplines. The amount of papers printed each year is staggering, not to mention conference papers, workshops, etc. When is someone a polymath? Which level of knowledge is required per domain? I love to refer to Simon and Chase’s work regarding expertise in chess and that it takes 10.000 hours to become an expert in chess. 1 hour per day and it takes about 27 years to become an expert. Now think of all the disciplines that you could learn (take the Propaedia of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it has/is a nice overview) — there are only 24 hours in a day. Even if you study full time (let’s say 6 hours sleep) it would take you about three decades to become an expert in 18 disciplines. And this does not take into account that disciplines diverge into many subdisciplines over time, that knowledge becomes obsolete over time as things become more clear, and that you need time to decide what to read/learn.
  5. On a higher level of knowledge (e.g., university level), it is less remembering something as understanding something — and knowing the degree to which you can trust the knowledge. Science does not stand still and a lot of things laypeople regard as well-founded or ‘crystal clear’ is subject of intense discussion in science. Simply remembering, e.g., the different kinds of animals or psychological heuristics used by humans is not enough. I think this is the difference between someone who has read something about a discipline (e.g., in one book) and someone who works in the field and knows not only what one author says, but how complex the subject really is.
  6. Memory isn’t everything — you also need time to think, to make connections. If you spend all time reading you have no time for happy accidents and chance discoveries. And unless you connect the different disciplines you are learning you have no advantage over someone who specialized in the subject under consideration. A specialist will always beat a generalist when the discussion is confined to the specialists area of expertise.
  7. Knowing for knowing sake isn’t enough. Skills do also matter (e.g., convincing others, being sociable), connections matter, reputation matters. Actually using knowledge is not easy — and people who know a lot are often not heard. Populism and rhetoric often win. Skills to actually apply knowledge take time to build, to develop — and trust is not established overnight. There are a lot of people who are knowledgeable (in their subdisciplines) but who are like little green men — never seen. Other people use their knowledge and do something with it.

Don’t get me wrong — I think that having an excellent memory is beneficial, and that having diverse interests, having hobbies besides work, is necessary for being creative. I also think that interdisciplinary work (later in a career) can lead to important discoveries.

But I also think that you have to be very critical about the area where you want to make a difference (if this is your goal) and how to achieve it. You can connect different disciplines, work interdisciplinary, etc., but you need to heavily invest in one (or both) disciplines first.

When there was little knowledge about the world available (ages and ages ago), you could become a polymath and contribute to a lot of different disciplines. I think these times are over. Perhaps there are a few authors who write books about science for public consumption that work with experts in different fields, but they make use of knowledge of others, they do not have it. Not in the necessary degree of detail.

What do you think?


It just occurred to me while polymaths in the sense of experts in many different fields is probably not possible, there might be a need (not necessarily a demand) for people who can bridge different disciplines. There is the whole popular science, public understanding of science/research, there is also the difficulty to communicate in interdisciplinary projects. So I wonder whether people who translate between disciplines, who are translators (and given the in-group biases many disciplines have: diplomats) are not something to invest in. You need a basic understanding of the disciplines and how they see themselves and the biases this might incur when dealing with other disciplines (e.g., using the same terms for different things or different terms for the same things). But it would leave becoming high level experts to specialists, while you make use of their knowledge and assist in making connections by facilitating the communication between experts.