Memory tricks we forgot

Every Spring, the ConEd building in Manhattan hosts an unusual tournament; the contestants compete to remember, among other things, a poem, a deck of cards, biographical information about strangers, and strings of numbers. In case you’re thinking this is just a MENSA meeting with expensive parking, let me add that the contestants aren’t geniuses. Nor do they have photographic memories.

The truth is actually more impressive, as Joshua Foer explained when he spoke at our university a few days ago. He said that these champions of recall hone their craft with practice. They simply maneuver their brains to get around natural human limitations of rote memorization. And he should know—he is one. Having chanced upon bouts of memory as a science journalist, Joshua was hooked. To write about it, he studied it the best possible way. He became a memory champion. His book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, describes his experience and notes these skills etched inside our brains.



In it you’ll understand how orators remembered their speeches many generations before the teleprompter. Back then, the pages of history were passed down from teachers to students through speech and memory. The last few centuries saw major changes. From Gutenberg to the iPhone, every time an invention enhanced our lives, it reduced our need to remember details. And we lost these nifty tricks that our ancestors had devised.

But the same technology that we can now blame for forgetting our wives’ birthdays allows us to scan people’s brains while testing their memory. fMRI studies of regular people and memory champions as they try to memorize things reveal a key difference—the champions use the spatial part of their brains, as if they are laying out the random items on a map-like structure inside their brains. Psychologists call this elaborative encoding. Let’s use Joshua’s examples.

If I told you that a guy’s name was Mr. Baker, you’re less likely to remember it than if you were told that the guy was a baker—because you associate a baker with a white hat, sweet smell, and hands covered with flour. ‘Mr. Baker’ doesn’t inspire anything nearly as vivid.

If you show chess grandmasters a photograph of an ongoing game, they can reconstruct the board from memory. But show them a picture of a randomly arranged board, and they remember barely more than a layperson. Context is everything. The position of a pawn in an ongoing chess game is part of a story, and a random one is not.

But what if you could generate context, or manufacture a story, for random bits of information?—or imagine baguettes and cakes when  introduced to a Mr. Baker? You can do that using the memory palace, a structure you must train yourself to imagine, which holds the things you want to remember encased in layers of fabricated context. And the more evocative the context—the brighter, smellier, noisier it is—the smoother your recall. Your verbal memory doesn’t hold a candle to your visual/spatial memory, which you should mobilize. You don’t have to memorize thousand digits of pi,  but you’ll always know where your keys are.

But really, can just anyone do this with practice? Yes, Joshua says, provided you remember to call upon this skill whenever you get information. Most of all, you must remember that you can do this. And the images should be really wacky. Here’s one of Joshua’s gems: you know how he remembers to begin speeches with the unusual memory contest? He imagines nudist bicyclists racing towards his front door with sweat glistening over their fat, jiggly bodies (antithetical to all that cardio they’re getting if you ask me.)

Joshua’s TED speech


41 thoughts on “Memory tricks we forgot

  1. Very well-composed writeup! I was simply blown away by the Baker/baker example. As a kid, I had a hard time remembering the emergency numbers for the fire rescue (101) and ambulance(102) in India. I would invariably get them mixed up. So, one day I decided enough was enough and figured a way to remember them: When would I call an ambulance? Only when I see someone about to die in the fire right? So fire came first, then ambulance. I know it seems silly now, and it was probably the original reason behind these numbers, but as a kid, I felt like I cracked something huge when I hit upon this!

  2. However does the principle of learning such skills (read as memo learning skill) generically applicable to one and all? I ask this because if it can be mastered in a way then an Alzheimer’s patient can be taught to remember his meds next time around. The point I try to make is that memory also depends on not only being able to master it by working your grey matter but also on the amount of that matter you have (crudely speaking, degeneration cannot be reversed with a mastery).

    • Good question. These methods have helped people whose memories have been wiped out by accidents or trauma. As for memory depending on the amount of matter one has, be that as it may, we don’t know the true limits on human memory. I for one had no idea that a person could memorize 1400 random binary digits in 30 minutes. Clearly, the limits of human memory—after applying these clever ideas—aren’t yet known.

      • I think that the record is 4000-something binaries in 30 minutes. I saw someone do 3620 in 30 min at the UK competition. You can learn to memorize 60 random binary digits in just a few min here. No experience necessary. Binary digits are easier to memorize than decimal.

    • Haha! I’m gonna try this too. I feel like I have early-onset Alzheimers. Now that they’re saying it’s another type of diabetes, I must remember to lay off the candy to remember other things well.

    • Thanks!
      BTW the idea of a memory palace came from the apocryphal story of a poet, Simonides of Ceos. I didn’t want to load the post with that story, but you can check it out on wiki if you want.

  3. Very cool, B. I do believe many of our time-saving gadgets are reducing our memory skills to nada. And that’s not good. Great post. I can remember where I put my keys as long as put them in the exact same spot every single time. As far as making speeches, I could do that — memory — pretty good at that — it’s the heart-pounding anxious panic attacks I experience when having to speak in front of people that I need to work on. ;).

    • Thanks 🙂
      I’m always forgetting where I put things and, yes, I put my keys in a bowl or I would lose them. I do speeches well if I’m allowed to ad-lib and to carry a crib-sheet with key points.
      As for the panic attacks, those are resolved only by speaking in public more and more.

  4. Fascinating post. I’m currently taking a full course load and it’s all medical classes. I have to memorize hundreds of new bits of info and medical terms every week. I just had my anatomy lab exam and I use tricks to help jog my memory. And the more ridiculous, the more I can remember. Like coxal. Cox-reminds me of Courtney Cox on Friends. She danced with Bruce Springstein and moved her hips. Coxal=hip. Once that memory association is stuck in my brain, it’s there forever.

    • Nice association! You’ll never forget coxal now. And you’re right, some courses just require you to learn and know a lot of facts, and it’s best to rely on such methods. I guess feigned contextual learning is the next best thing to conceptual learning!

  5. It is a fact .Memory was relative ,in the past people related events to remember dates.Like birth of a child or a wedding ,a celebration in the family was bundled together in the mind and random access brought forth the dates to the person.But the post is very correct, with the new gadgets available storage in the same has made the brains lose some of its abilities to remember.

  6. Great post! I think we all use instinctive techniques to remember things – e.g. dates as someone pointed out. And it’s also true that the more we do it the better we get at it. The brain is ‘plastic’ so if you lose one set of connections or pathways you can create new ones. Or if a particular memory has multiple connections linking to it already then the loss of a few doesn’t matter as much.

    • Thanks!
      You’re right; practice seems to be the only true way of getting at it.
      And you make an interesting point—if a particular memory has many connections, the loss of a few won’t matter so much.

      • Thanks Bharat. My Dad had mild dementia for many years before he died, so as his carer I was motivated to look into the whole memory loss problem. Repetition was one of the strategies we used and it did work.

      • Nice. This is my answer when people point out the seeming uselessness of these methods in the age of the internet—it is by such exercises that we can hope to explore the connection between brain physiology and memory.

  7. I find these things fascinating. But I’m always worried that I’ll be too lazy to come up with associations to help me remember something in particular, or that I just won’t remember the associations after I’ve created them…

    • Same here. This is not the first time I’ve heard of something like this. I feel I’m just not the kind of person who will apply himself and do this properly. People like me gape at such feats—that’s it. Aw hell, maybe I’ll try memorizing a deck of cards someday!

  8. I have always had to use memory tricks. When sat for the PMP exam a few years ago and had to remember several formulas, ultimately I put them into dance steps that made sense to me. I danced all my life so I used Latin dances for each of the formulas. It worked, I didn’t forget a single formula and passed that section of the exam.

    • That’s brilliant. I guess because you’re interested in dance, those associations would be second nature to you, and you wouldn’t forget anything. But I must confess, it’s one of the most interesting practical use of these techniques I’ve heard!

  9. Pingback: Joshua Foer: How to Improve Your Memory | What is psychology?

  10. I think I saw this guy on The Daily Show. It reminds me of one of my favorite mnemonics – stolen from an Eighties’ sitcom, the name of which escapes me. In order to remember that AU is the chemical symbol for gold, I think “A U, you just stole my gold watch.” That’s all I got, man. Have missed you! BTW, was talking you up at a writing gig I attended and was telling everyone what a great editor you are. Thinking you should consider editing professionally.

    • I’ve always found mnemonics amazing. They help us commit chains of details into memory without causal relation.
      What have you been up to? You’re posting after a long time. How’s your novel going on? Thanks for talking me up so much! As for professional editing, maybe, someday. But right now, I’m bogged down under my lab and related work. Hope to write something soon.

      • Just took some time off. Had lots of condo organizing and family stuff to take care of. Back to work. Getting back to my novel rewrite today. Got great feedback on my first page from a well-known writer and critique master. Hope you’re work is going well. Sorry to have just fallen off the planet like that. You’ll have to friend me on FB (the real me) and we can stay in touch more easily.

      • Yay! Well, there’s an excellent reason not to be online much. I would LOVE to go to India one day. Hope you have a wonderful trip. Are you visiting with family or is it just a pleasure trip?

  11. I really need to do this more. I let so much slip out of my mind, it’s crazy. I always think, “Oh, I can look it up” or “I can write it down,” but for those times I can’t, I should use some of these tips.

So, what do you think?

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