Not long ago, basketball star LeBron James made the news for a skill that seemed unrelated to basketball: memory.
During a post-game news conference in 2018, James broke down several plays in incredible detail: “The first possession we ran them down all the way to two on the shot clock. Marcus Morris missed the jumpshot, fouled it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson, and he came off and missed it.”
He continued to describe the entire sequence of events, from who did what and when they did it. His memory was so accurate it amazed reporters and made some speculate he had a “photographic” memory.
Yet, as impressive as it seems, LeBron’s memory for the game, though difficult to develop, is not uncommon for elite performers across fields. Top dancers remember complex sequences after seeing them once, skilled musicians can play chord progressions after one listen, and chess masters can play multiple games at a time in their mind.
To understand how this elite memory works, let’s take a look at what’s happening in these performers’ minds that allows them to remember so much about their craft.
Elite Performers “Chunk” Information
Masters of their crafts seem to be able to remember huge quantities of information related to their field. What’s happening in their brains that allows this to happen?
Through many hours of study and practice, elite performers develop a complex understanding and improved memory for their craft. They can also “chunk” large amounts of information into meaningful pieces that are easier to process and memorize.
We can think of elite performers’ ability to chunk information related to their field using language as an analogy. While elite players see the game as words and sentences, the rest of us see it as individual letters. Let’s use the sentence “He is a great basketball player” from three different perspectives as an example.
A young child who knows her ABCs but does not know how to read words will see:
H E I S A G R E A T B A S K E T B A L L P L A Y E R
That’s twenty-six individual pieces of information, each letter in the sentence, and would be very difficult for the child to remember.
A Japanese native who is learning English as a second language (and doesn’t understand the meaning of each word) will see:
He is a great basketball player
That’s six pieces of information—each word in the sentence—instead of twenty-six, making it easier to memorize.
Finally, let’s look at it from the perspective of a native English speaker. For him, a single read of the sentence (“He is a great basketball player”) is enough to lock it in his memory.
The native English speaker can memorize the statement with ease, but we cannot claim he has a better memory than the Japanese woman or the young child; he just has less information to memorize. His proficiency in English enables him to chunk the information into a single piece, the sentence, the same way a basketball player like James is able to remember entire sequences of a game.
We call the heightened memory capability displayed by elite performers “domain-specific memory.” Let’s look at chess, a game where people often see their top players as having a prodigious memory.
Chess masters can remember entire boards after looking at them for a few seconds. Memory in chess serves such an important role that a player’s memory for the game directly links with their ability to play it well.
What’s surprising is that chess masters don’t have a great memory in general. They have a great memory for chess, but an average memory for other things. In psychological studies, chess masters could only keep around seven pieces of (non-chess related) information in their short-term memory—the same as most of us.
Chess masters’ incredible memory for the game relies on seeing, interpreting, and memorizing the relationship between pieces, not each of them individually. They look at three pieces on the board, for example, and recognize it as an attack formation they’ve seen in the past. They interpret it as one chunk, not three different things.
Experience Grows a Person’s Subject “Inventory”
Another important factor in the memory capacity of elite performers is experience. For example, a chess master’s memory for the game grows as they see each match in relation to the “inventory” of matches and positions they experienced over years of practice.
Novices, on the contrary, don’t have as many points of reference for moves or positions. They see each game as something new, making it harder to process and memorize. In terms of our language analogy, chess masters have a more complex vocabulary and fluency for the game.
They no longer see individual letters (chess pieces); instead, they see and remember words and statements grouped in relation to each other, a narrative. This allows them to chunk information on the board in meaningful ways, such as attack or defense formations, patterns, or areas of tension. And it’s the reason they have a better memory for it.
Elite Memory Isn’t Innate but Developed
The domain-specific memory displayed by LeBron James, chess masters, and other elite performers reflects the amount of study and practice they’ve put into their craft. They were not born with a better memory than the rest of us; they developed it through practice in their fields.
An exceptional memory for their craft is a byproduct of the work they put into mastering their skills. The good news for you and me is that this cause-and-effect relationship between experience, practice, and memory carries the implication that we could achieve the same result if we put in the work, too.