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