Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Is it possible to improve one's memory? That is a question explored in a book I recently read called "Moonwalking with Einstein (The Art and Science of Remembering Everything)" by Joshua Foer. I've been musing about memory (see previous posts) and in the process of Googling for information came across the title of this book. Curious, I ordered it on Kindle. Turns out that Foer is a journalist who became interested in memory and in people who have extraordinary powers of recall. 

On assignment for Discover magazine, Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championship where contestants must do things such as memorize and recall the order of entire (or several) decks of playing cards. He interviews several contestants who are former U.S. champions as well as some memory athletes from Europe. He also visits and interviews scientists who study memory, people who have suffered brain injuries altering their memory capacities, and savants (Rain Man). One of the first things he finds out, from some of the memory athletes, is that anyone can be trained to perform the amazing feats he observes at the U.S. Memory Championship. It only takes time and commitment to the training.

Before long, Foer has become fascinated with the idea that he might be able to acquire these skills and decides to train for the next U.S. championship, a year hence, under the tutorship of a European memory athlete. One of the first things he learns is the basic technique that these memory athletes use...a technique that dates back to a Greek poet by the name of Simonides. In the fifth century B.C., Simonides was attending a banquet and after delivering an ode, was called outside. Just as he exited the banquet hall, the marble building collapsed, crushing everyone left inside.  What happened next forged the way for the technique taught to Foer. Simonides visualized the building and all its contents prior to the collapse and then led each of the victims' relatives to the exact spot in the rubble where their loved one had been sitting.  According to legend, this experience ultimately led to the method that modern memory champions use. Basically, it's all a matter of technique and understanding how memory works.

As I was reading this, I was thinking, "Righhht." However, once I understood the technique, I decided to test it out.  I asked my husband to help me by giving me a list of random words, twelve in all, which I would subsequently recall, in order. Most people, given such a list, would only be able to recall five to seven items (normally, I would be lucky to remember three).  Here is the list:

Einstein (note I did not tell him the title of the book!)
San Francisco
Pinot Noir
Taj Mahal
Spartina (a plant genus familiar to both of us)

He wrote each item down as he called them out to me. I took a second or two to commit each item to memory. After hearing the final item, I then was able to recount all twelve items on the list, in perfect order. In fact, that was about a week ago, and I still remember them (as the above list demonstrates).  How did I do it?

The technique involves something called a "memory palace", which is a setting (a building, a landscape with distinct landmarks) that you know intimately. For example, I used my house, which has twelve main rooms. I decided on a set "route" through my house starting in the master bathroom at one end and terminating in our office/library at the other end of the house.  In each room I placed an image representing each word I was given.  It's important to have a very vivid image, preferably someone or something doing some action (the more outrageous, the better).  For the dog, I imagined an Irish Setter splashing around in our bathtub. For Hercules, I imagined the mythical character (specifically, an actor who played Hercules in a movie) standing in our dining room hoisting the dining table over his head. For Mozart, I imagined watching the movie "Amadeus" playing on our TV in the den.  And so on. 

I was vaguely familiar with the idea behind this method, but had never had it explained quite this way or in such detail before. The difficulty is not in remembering, but in being able to quickly conjure up sufficiently vivid images.  It takes a good imagination.  Even so, it is especially difficult to quickly think of vivid images for abstract concepts such as "derivatives".  For that item, I used the stock market meaning, and imagined a moving ticker display in red lights above the guest bathroom mirror. The other difficulty or limitation is having enough "memory palaces" to house your items and then later to "clean house" and remove items that you no longer need to remember.  You might be able to use all the houses and apartments you've ever lived in plus your workplaces to expand your memory capacity.  Foer additionally visited museums and similar places to adopt them as memory palaces in preparation for the U.S. Memory Championship.

How useful is this technique...beyond amazing your family and friends? Well, I can see how it would be great for a student during exams, especially for those courses that require extensive memorization of lists of items. I can recall sitting and grimly trying to remember the last item in a list that I had been asked to provide on an exam and coming up blank.  However, in everyday life, it's too easy to write out to-do lists or to look things up on the internet.  Foer has a nice discussion about all this and how we (modern humans) have come to rely on these external memory sources compared to the past before written language.  In fact, one explanation as to why the memory palace technique works so well is because our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to remember locations of food, water, shelter, and other items essential for survival; our brains are still wired to remember things in association with physical loci.

Anyway, the book is entertaining and quite interesting.  You'll have to read it to find out how the author did in the U.S. Memory Championship.

Photo: In my memory exercise, I imagined Einstein standing in our master bath writing his famous equation on the mirror with red lipstick.

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