If you feel like getting your mind blown, tune into the Fox show Superhuman. Maybe you’ve already caught one or all of the episodes since the show started airing in June of this year. If so, your head has probably been twisted by the contestants' unusual skills. The show, hosted by actor Kal Penn (Kumar of the Harold and Kumar flicks), tests the abilities of ordinary people using their extraordinary skills to complete related feats for a whopping cash prize of $50,000. Fields of skill include memory, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.
The most recent Superhuman episode featured Arizona's Kaden Taylor in the mix. The Gilbert High graduate now resides in Tucson with a degree in computer science from U of A and works as a software engineer. He is also a mnemonist – a person with exceptional memory skills. Taylor is a rabid fan of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. He got deeper into seeing what his own memory was capable of while running a Holmes-oriented blog. New Times talked with him about his appearance on the show, along with some of his other memory-related accomplishments.
Taylor didn't take home the 50 large, but he made the top three and caused many audience members, and the judges, to drop their jaws while he showed off his major memory skills. The show airs at 8 p.m. on Mondays on Fox 10 Phoenix.
How did you get involved with the Superhuman show?
A while back, I was running a Sherlock Holmes-themed blog where I set up a training regimen so that people could practice their skills of observation, deduction, and memory. I started getting pulled into the memory part, especially after reading a couple of books on memory technique. Someone contacted me through my Facebook page, having found me through the blog, and asked if I would be interested in competing on Superhuman.
Your superhuman talent is that you can memorize large amounts of information?
That's correct, as far as I recall [laughs].
When were you first aware that you could do that?
I've always been a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, and one of my favorite things about him is that he never really had to consult a manual or history book of any kind; he just had the information accessible. So, like I said, there were a couple of books that I looked at, and after reading those, it made sense that the key to it is visualization and hijacking your spatial memory to store other things. Once I started practicing that, it turned out to be way easier than I expected.
What kind of capacity are we talking about? What’s the largest amount of information you've memorized?
As personal challenges, I did somewhere between 75 and 100 digits of pi, that was fun. There was also a challenge to memorize every movie that had ever won an Oscar for best picture and its winning year.
These didn’t have anything to do with the show, though, right?
Correct. These were just to test the outer limits of what kind of data I could memorize. I've never been that interested in pushing the limits of the amount, but more concerned with seeing what kind of data, and how complex the data is, before it starts getting difficult.
So, you're trying to match comprehension along with volume?
Yes, there's a step I use called rapid contextualization, where I create an association for the first thing I see, so then when I see it, I'm almost reminded in reverse.
So, you're creating a marker, essentially?
Yes, exactly. For example, most recently I threw together a list of songs I wanted to download and one of the artists was Andrew McMahon, so I imagined my friend Andrew dressed up as He-Man. That's the point, the sillier or more ridiculous it is, the more it sticks. You have to have an active imagination.
Initially, it seems like it could create cognitive dissonance, but maybe not if you are the one creating the association.
Memory is such a creative process; it's worth the analysis. People who are struggling with test anxiety could benefit so much from understanding that it's not just about putting information in and taking it out, it's about changing it in a way that is unique to you, so that when you find it again, your mark is on it — that makes it that much easier to pull out of your brain, because at that point it's just a part of your brain and a part of your personality.
That's pretty amazing. Have you ever thought about using your skills in school settings?
Absolutely! In fact, before they contacted me about the show, I had a Craigslist ad up for memory tutoring, which got about as much business as you'd expect — almost none, because it was difficult to explain to someone how I could make them better at a subject without actually teaching them that subject. If you're trying to pass a biochemistry test, typically you want to tutor the subject on the same material the teacher has provided. This is one step too general for most audiences.
I agree. It's good for long-term storage of information or a quick to-do list or even last-minute cramming. I remember in a class I crammed for a test by shoving as many details from the study guide in as possible, maybe 10 minutes prior to the test.
Let’s talk about Superhuman. Did you compete against people who have the exact same skill as you?
If you're looking to see who the best mnemonist is, then it makes sense to have a bunch of mnemonists competing in an episode, but with Superhuman, just as there are a whole bunch of different so-called superhuman talents, there are a bunch of subcategories of memory, right? You can memorize different types of data, or you can focus on the amount, and so on — the complexity, the retention, and a lot of those are hard to score, so that get really complicated. It's tricky to compare mnemonists, in general, unless you have some sort of metric by which to do that — which there are are — but the focus of this show is to showcase people's weird and interesting skills and talents, and it does so by switching it up and highlighting a variety of superhuman abilities.
Can you tell us about some of the other competitors?
Sure. For example, there are people that do speed math. Also, people that have incredible muscle memory and can visualize themselves moving around in 3-D space and can act that out whether blindfolded or not. People with incredible recognition abilities, who can hear or touch a thing and immediately identify what it is despite that it is a part of a much denser category. There are are mnemonists, too, but all with varied specialties, like memorizing a lot of data quickly, etc. Or like in my case, memorizing a lot of weird data and being able to mentally manipulate it rather than just regurgitating it back to others.
Each guest is just on the show once, yeah?
Yes, one appearance per contestant. It's not like Jeopardy! where you can win and move on to future rounds.
How was the overall experience?
It was an absolute blast. Everybody that works on the show was amazing. The challenges were so cool and everyone was nice and enthusiastic. It comes across as less of a competition and more of a showcase. It feels more like a talent show then a nail-biting death match of people with strange skills.
What's next for you?
Since taping, I accepted an offer for a full-time job at the company I've been interning with, so now I'm a software engineer, and that's been wonderful. My degree pays off, yay! I want to start competing in some memory competitions once I have some free income and can go, 'cause they're often out of state. I'd love to get that experience.
Did being on television give you the bug?
Oh yeah! I’ve joked about being a detective on a show. That would be amazing if the TV industry was to do another Sherlock Holmes remake, I'd be happy to throw my hat in for that.