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Remembering numbers: All it takes is a system

Monday, April 14, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

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Now close your eyes and repeat those numbers in sequence. How many could you remember?

That, roughly speaking, is what a cognitive scientist calls a digit span test. It's a memory test to see how many random digits a person can remember.

Most people can remember between five and nine digits; unusual folks might recall 15 to 18.

Imagine the surprise of Carnegie Mellon University researchers in the late 1970s when they came across a student who could master 82 digits.

Of course, he had a system.

A track and cross-country runner, Steve Faloon was accustomed to timed runs and, when forced to remember a string of numbers, tended to break them down into segments recognizable to him as typical times for a quarter mile, a mile, two miles, 10 kilometers, etc.

These digit span tests might seem like an odd bit of research, perhaps even pointless, but it would prove an example of the sort of work on basic human thought processes that would eventually lead to real-world benefits, such as a new way to train soldiers to detect land mines, said Jim Staszewski, senior cognitive engineer at the Carnegie Mellon psychology department.

The lead researcher, William Chase, set out to prove that the student's surprising skill in the digit span test could be passed on to another. So in 1979, he recruited another runner, Dario Donatelli, to see if he could duplicate Faloon's feat.

"The whole point," Donatelli said, "was that he used a coding system and he was able to teach me the system."

Initially, Donatelli, an undergraduate business student, was primarily interested in the $5 an hour he could earn as a research subject. "Then it became a challenge," he recalled, and he and Faloon made it a contest. "I'm a competitive person; he was too," said Donatelli, who has been the CMU track and cross country coach since 1987.

The work continued for years, eventually outliving Chase, as well as Faloon, who died in 1981 of bleeding in the brain related to aplastic anemia. But by the end, Donatelli was able to recall an astounding 113 digits.

"To be an expert," concluded Staszewski, who inherited the project after Chase's death, "you don't have to be brilliant, you just have to work at it."

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