Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sentence Content vs. Style

In this series, I've been talking about how to construct sentences that convey your ideas clearly and in a manner that readers find interesting.  I've been providing examples of exercises suggested by Stanley Fish in his book How to Write a Sentence.

In this post, I continue with a discussion of how to develop your writing skills using simple ideas or sentences as starting points. Fish emphasizes that to develop your skill at writing well-constructed sentences, it doesn't matter what the content is. In fact, he argues that the less interesting the content, the more useful they are in getting you to focus on developing form and style.  Once you master the techniques, then content becomes important. For scientists writing about their research, the general content is already specified by the topic of the study and the results of the experiments.  If I used science examples, those of you who are in science would be focusing on the content and whether it is accurate or contains factual errors, whether you are familiar or not with the topic, and whether it is sufficiently detailed or is missing key elements. For this reason, I've been using sentences taken from literature and non-science topics.  In some cases, however, I've provided examples from the scientific literature to examine how these ideas can be applied to science writing.  But these have been introduced after the technique has been explained and illustrated with a non-science example.

One sentence form that can be useful in scientific writing relates to the art of argument.  In their book, They Say/I Say, authors Graff and Birkenstein describe a sentence structure in which conventional wisdom is stated followed by a statement of disagreement:

"They say that women are equal to men, but I say women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition." 

Graff and Birkenstein offer a number templates for different forms of argument, such as the one above, which not only provide structure but can also suggest ideas for arguments that might not otherwise occur. You can take almost any commonly-held belief and write a sentence like the one above. I selected an example that relates to this blog (gender equality) and wrote not only a contradictory statement, but added a little twist to it....one that had not occurred to me until I forced myself to come up with an opposing argument.  This effect is what Fish argues arises from a focus on sentence structures, especially very restrictive structures. The more restrictive, the more creative you tend to be to fulfill the exercise.

The point is that by considering specific structures of sentences, you can discover new insights.  The example I gave previously of time-traveling sentences is another template that can stimulate creativity and discovery of relationships one might not otherwise uncover.  In that exercise, we had the task of writing a sentence that linked actions across different time zones: past, present, future. We might further restrict the exercise by requiring that the sentence begin with the word "having".  An example might be:

"Having traveled a tiring distance, he slumped to the ground where passersby later would glance quickly then avert their gaze not wishing to become entangled in whatever troubles had felled him."

Another example:

"Having awakened in a strange room, she gingerly arose from the bed not wanting to make any noises that might alert others in the house to her renewed consciousness."

We can do this all day...create good sentences that start with a specific wordThe task is much more difficult without restrictions, partly because of more choices from which one can choose.  An analogy might be a dinner menu. In some restaurants, especially ethnic establishments, there are many pages to the menu with tens of dozens of items.  There are so many choices that the customer has trouble choosing among, not only food groups (fish, poultry, beef), but how they are prepared (baked, broiled, fried) and with what ingredients (myriad choices).  Similarly, when we are faced with an exercise to "write a good sentence", our minds are overwhelmed with the possibilities, and we may have difficulty deciding what the topic should be or in what style we should structure a "good sentence".  At the other extreme, are restaurants that offer perhaps five entrees each evening.  With the latter, one can focus and more easily decide between a fish entree and a beef entree (there being only one dish of each prepared in a specific way).  Similarly, with a restriction to write a sentence that reduces our choices, we are able to decide more easily.

The other reason that restrictions are helpful in writing exercises is that they encourage us to be creative.  We have to be creative to design a good sentence that meets the criteria imposed on the exercise. If there are no restrictions, we are more likely to write a less interesting sentence.  I mention restrictions and their impact on writing because it might be helpful when you find yourself having difficulties writing about a particular topic or to make a specific point.  You may know generally what you want to say, but can't think of an interesting or compelling way to write it. Or you may have written a long, rambling narrative that must be shortened considerably to fit within a required word limit (an abstract, for example).  This is where imposing a restriction might jump-start your creative juices.  

For example, you may want to convey the idea that your experimental approach was critical to uncovering an important insight...that a different approach, perhaps one that has been routinely used, would have failed.  You are having difficulty coming up with a good sentence to capture this idea.  You can't even think of how to begin such a sentence.  Let's say that we set a restriction on the sentence so that it must begin with the phrase, "had we".  Now we have not only the first two words of the sentence, but they impose a structure that fits the contrasting ideas or outcomes that you wish to convey: 

"Had we only compared the growth responses of Species A and B grown separately, without also examining their growth in mixture, we would have incorrectly concluded that the treatment favored the growth of Species A and failed to recognize that competition from Species B could prevent Species A from benefiting from the treatment."   

Now you have a fairly good, although complex, sentence that describes your approach and simultaneously explains why your choice was the superior one in this study (and hints at why previous work perhaps has failed).  You may want to further revise this sentence or even change it completely, but the exercise has forced you to get the basic points written out and structured so that they are coordinated and positioned in relation to each other within the sentence.  

Obviously, you cannot afford to apply this restriction method to every sentence you write.  What I'm suggesting is that it is a way to stimulate creativity at points where you have drawn a blank in your writing.  The next time you find yourself staring at the page and thinking you can't imagine how to write about some idea, try this method and see if it helps.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beyond Strunk and White

We've been considering sentences and how to write them.

I mentioned in the first post in this series, the book by Stanley Fish called How to Write a Sentence.  He writes initially about how grammar books (e.g., Strunk and White) focus on form, but on aspects of form that are detached from the underlying form that must already be in place before one begins worrying about grammar and punctuation. Such books assume that the writer already has the skill to write a well-constructed sentence, to be able to express a complete thought with a subject and predicate, and to link thoughts together coherently in a sentence.  They consequently focus on the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation, especially on those rules that people find difficult to remember and apply. There's nothing wrong with this approach--it is indispensable information, which writers need to be successful. What Fish means is that grammar books skip over a very important aspect of writing, which is how to organize one's thoughts in a logical manner and to do so within the space of a single sentence. The latter is what Fish's book attempts to address.

Fish's point is important because without a basic understanding of how to express one's ideas in a logical manner and in a way that captures the reader's attention, the ability to correctly punctuate is not very important (except to pass a test perhaps). Another point he makes and that also occurred to me as I was reading is that the emphasis on grammar and punctuation partly underlies people's fear of writing. Novice writers can become completely frozen at the thought of making a technical error that will be embarrassing. Worse, a writer's ability to freely express themselves is often blocked by the desire to write a perfect sentence (without technical errors) at the first go. I've talked about writing and writer's block previously and ways to overcome it. Perfectionism can underlie some of these writing difficulties, and an emphasis on technical errors can exacerbate them.  Perfectionism (and fear of making a technical error) was definitely part of my problem when I first began to write.  However, looking back on it, I now think that it was also a lack of understanding of how to construct a sentence in a way that expressed my thoughts clearly and unambiguously.

Fish points out that with practice, a writer develops a grammatical "sixth sense", which enables her to sense that something is wrong with a sentence and then to identify it and correct it.  The latter can occur during revision of the writing so as to not interfere with the natural flow of ideas during the act of writing the first draft. Such an ability only comes with practice...lots of it. Once acquired, however, the writer is free to write without worrying over every little grammatical detail, which can be reviewed and corrected later during revision.  Of course, experienced writers are able to express their ideas freely while simultaneously making corrections to the grammar and punctuation without blocking the flow of writing. These technical aspects become so ingrained that they are applied to the writing with little thought or consideration. For the novice writer, however, it's best to get the ideas down on paper first and later revise to correct grammar and punctuation. I would argue that it's much more important to get your idea across than to write a perfectly punctuated sentence. There are plenty of examples in literature of fantastic sentences that take your breath away, but that are not punctuated properly, according to Strunk and White.

But back to the point about the underlying form of a sentence.  Fish describes an exercise that helps a writer understand sentence form and to practice writing complex sentences.  The exercise involves taking a simple, three-word sentence such as, "Mary looked out." and expanding it to form first a fifteen word sentence and then to a sentence of thirty or more words.  Here is an example, using this short sentence as a base:

In the middle of her presentation to a standing-room-only audience of top scientists from around the world, Mary, a young post-doctoral researcher, nervously looked out at her mentor sitting in the front row, who had pioneered the topic of her research and had won a Nobel Prize for it and who typically conveyed an intimidating image to anyone facing him, especially in a forum where the speaker could be subjected to public humiliation in front of colleagues, and saw that he was nodding appreciatively at her delivery and content, an action that boosted her confidence enormously and that she later would remember and cherish as she faced more challenging and unfriendly spectators.

Okay, this isn't a literary gem, but it illustrates how the exercise works. I could have written an infinite number of variations on this theme using "Mary looked out." as the basis.  I wrote this 112-word sentence spontaneously, with very little thought initially as to what it would describe.  The sentence seemed to take on a life of its own as I began to imagine Mary standing in front of an audience (a choice I made after contemplating what Mary might be looking at). I found this exercise to be quite enlightening and fun to conduct.  What you begin to recognize in conducting such exercises is how a single sentence can tell a complex and interesting story.  The sentence I wrote conveys a huge amount of information about Mary and her apparent relationship with her mentor, even projecting Mary's experience and feelings far into the future (see previous post about time-traveling sentences).

The point is not to develop a writing style that involves long, convoluted sentences, but to develop a sense of how relationships among words give sense and coherence even to lengthy sentences such as this one.  The exercise promotes an ease with which a writer can convey complex ideas and thoughts in a logical and clear manner....a skill that is quite useful for technical science writing.

Give this exercise a try and see for yourself.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to the Future

We are discussing sentences and how to write better ones (see previous posts).

An interesting and useful type of sentence is one that covers several time zones: past, present, and future.  The quote from the movie, Back to the Future, is written in this form.  It takes the listener from the past (last night's visit from Darth Vader) to future consequences (date with Lorraine vs. brain melting).  Here are a few more fictional examples I made up to illustrate how this sentence form can work to connect thoughts or events happening at different points in time:
 -Having spent all of her life surrounded by modern comforts, she gazed in despair at the rickety outhouse at the end of a gap-toothed pier anticipating the noxious odors within and the indignities awaiting her when she finally would be forced to make use of the facility.
 -He thought about last night and what happened as he drove his car, now slightly dented and stained, to his office where he would pretend to be his usual carefree self, laughing at the boss’s jokes and flirting with the female staff.
 -I was already halfway out the door to get the mail when I spotted the rock, a chunk of gneiss by the looks of it, sitting forlornly in the middle of the living room floor and only belatedly noted the broken window.
 -After struggling to reach the top of the rise, she paused to take in the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun and then again wondered if she would find the child in time.
 In each case, the sentence takes us from a point in the past, through the present, and into the future.  They generate curiosity and anticipation in the reader.  As first sentences in a story, they would stimulate the desire to read on and discover what happens next.  Can we use this form in scientific writing?  Yes.  In fact, I think most of us have used it at one time or another, but never really contemplated what we were doing.  Here’s a typical example:
 After preconditioning the seedlings for two weeks to ambient conditions in the growth facility, we applied the flooding treatments, which were designed to simulate future sea-level rise scenarios predicted for the end of the 21st century.
Here’s another fictional example that might appear in an abstract or as an opening statement in the introduction:
 To resolve the longstanding controversy surrounding [an important topic], we conducted a meta-analysis of 56 key studies and discovered a methodological pattern explaining 84 % of the conflicting data, an insight that led us to develop a new experimental protocol for future studies.
If I read the above sentence referring to my primary topic of research, wild horses couldn’t tear me away from that paper.

In the last post, I pointed out that the first line in Darwin's treatise, On the Origin of Species, was written in this time-traveling form:

"When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.”  

This sentence starts the reader in Darwin's past (his journey on the Beagle) and then makes reference to the distant past (geological) and how it relates to the present situation. 
This sentence type is clearly useful, but requires some practice to be able to implement successfully (in both fiction and in technical writing).  You can practice writing such sentences by making up a few lines, using a fictional or real situation. It's easiest if you restrict yourself to a specific opening word or phrase to begin, such as "after observing" or "had we".  For example: "After observing the response under control conditions for one hour, we then proceeded to apply the experimental treatments."  Another example: "Had we not included soil controls, our conclusions would have been different." Later, you can try a more complicated sentence that spans past, present, and future.  The point of such an exercise is that when you sit down to write your next paper, this form will be in your repertoire.  Practicing sentence forms is comparable to practicing scales as a musician.  If you practice writing different sentence forms, you will be able to automatically apply those forms to your writing with little effort.  An advantage of this sentence form is that it forces you to connect several events (separated in time) in a single sentence instead of a long paragraph.  If done well, it can not only save space, but can lead to an elegant and concise summary.

Photo Credit: Still image from Back to the Future, Universal Pictures. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sentences and Origins

We've been discussing first sentences in works of literature and science.  In the last post, I looked at some recent articles in the journal, Nature.  How about first lines in some famous scientific works?  Here’s the first sentence in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.” 
I think this is an interesting opening sentence that not only tells us something about what is to come, but also manages to convey a sense of humility by the author in venturing his insights about the topic, while at the same time subtly establishes his credentials.  He doesn’t start off by making some pompous declaration about the importance of his work or boldly stating that he’s an expert about to expound a new theory.  Instead, he basically says that during his travels he noticed unique patterns that intrigued him and led to an important insight. Notice that, in describing the process whereby he acquired his insight, he says he was “much struck”.  That phrase says a lot and conveys the impression that these patterns were so compelling that he could not help but notice them (and that the reader may also become "struck" by them).  Then Darwin uses the term “facts” to describe his observations about the “distribution” of the organisms he observed.  That terminology subtly interjects the idea that what he’s about to describe is not mere speculation, but a conclusive truth. He also provides some history about how he came by the knowledge he’s about to describe (serving as a naturalist onboard the Beagle), which tells the reader that he’s no armchair theorist without field experience.  He goes on in the rest of the introduction to establish his credentials as a naturalist and author, but this beginning sentence does all that quite succinctly.  
Darwin is a bit vague, perhaps deliberately so, in the use of the term, “inhabitants” in the opening sentence.  Victorian reviewer, Sir Richard Owen, wonders if Darwin means human inhabitants: we suppose he means aboriginal inhabitants, of South America, or in their distribution on that continent, to have suggested to any mind that man might be a transmuted ape, or to throw any light on the origin of the human or other species?” As one reads on, it is clear that Darwin meant plant and animal inhabitants of South America.  He uses the term “organic beings” and “innumerable species” a few paragraphs later and ultimately explains that he was referring to the distribution of certain animal species (rheas, Galapagos tortoises).  I’ve not found anything that explains why Darwin might have used the term inhabitant without being more specific, but then he may have thought it would soon be obvious which inhabitants he was talking about.  Owen, who was one of the main reviewers of this work, was a critic of the mechanism of evolution espoused by Darwin and seemed to be looking for points to criticize, particularly in relation to human origins. 
Here’s the second sentence:
“These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species –that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.”
Darwin continues his tone of humility, saying that the facts “seemed” to him to reveal something about a “mystery of mysteries” and then acknowledges someone else as the source of that terminology.  This sentence announces that what he’s writing about is a deeply important topic.  Using the term, “mystery of mysteries” tells the reader that what she’s about to learn is a secret of nature, perhaps a truth that heretofore has been unknowable except by divine revelation.  Certainly a puzzle requiring detailed investigation and discovery to unravel.  Darwin names this mystery: the origin of species, which reflects back on the title of the work.
He repeats the term “facts”, which again drives home the point that the observations he’s about to describe are concrete and unassailable.  
Darwin’s lead sentence has an interesting structure, one that traverses time zones both in describing his personal history as well as the observations upon which his work is based.  He refers to his time on the Beagle, a past event.  He explicitly links past and present in the sentence (present to the past inhabitants) and then refers to "geological relations", further suggesting that his “facts” cover a huge time span in history, foreshadowing the concept of evolution.  
 In the next post, I will explore this "time traveling" type of sentence a bit more.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Impressions

We are talking about sentences and how to write good ones, especially first sentences.  In the last post, I gave several examples of famous first lines in literature and promised to examine examples from the scientific literature.
I looked up a few papers in the journal Nature to see how their opening sentences were constructed.  Here are a few at random from the most recent issue (first line of abstract with citations removed):
 “Most known extrasolar planets (exoplanets) have been discovered using the radial velocity or transit methods.”
 “Angelman syndrome is a severe neurodevelopmental disorder caused by deletion or mutation of the maternal allele of the ubiquitin protein ligase E3A (UBE3A).”
 A conserved protein from enteropathogenic Escherichia coli, NleE, inhibits innate immune defence against infection by disrupting the NF-κB signalling pathway through methylation of ubiquitin-chain sensing proteins.”
 Insights into the rotary mechanism of the Thermus thermophilus ATP synthase are obtained using electron cryomicroscopy to determine its three-dimensional structure calculated to subnanometre resolution.”
 “In 1969, a palaeontologist proposed that theropod dinosaurs used their tails as dynamic stabilizers during rapid or irregular movements, contributing to their depiction as active and agile predators.”

 I don’t know about you, but from the list above, I would be most likely to select the last one to read.  Based on that first sentence, I would expect this paper to (1) be interesting, (2) tell a good story, and (3) be written in such a way as to be understandable by someone unfamiliar with the topic.
 Here is the second sentence of the abstract:
 “Since then the inertia of swinging appendages has been implicated in stabilizing human walking, aiding acrobatic manoeuvres by primates and rodents, and enabling cats to balance on branches.”
 And here is the last sentence of the abstract:
 “Leaping lizards show that inertial control of body attitude can advance our understanding of appendage evolution and provide biological inspiration for the next generation of manoeuvrable search-and-rescue robots.”
 The title of this paper is, not surprisingly, intriguing and also concisely conveys what it is all about: “Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs”.  Both the title and the first sentence were written with full comprehension of what this work is all about and its broader significance (robot design).  They even got in some alliteration and reference to a comic book exclamation (leaping lizards!). 

 One of the interesting aspects of good first sentences is that they can convey an enormous amount of information about a topic in a very short space or they can stimulate curiosity or anticipation with just a few choice words.  That is what a novelist or a scientist writing a journal article may strive for.
Do you have any favorite first lines in scientific papers? Do you notice first sentences; do they grab your attention or leave you uninspired?

In the next post, I'll take a look at a famous scientific treatise and how the first line is structured.

Photo by DrDoyenne

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Good Sentence Is Hard To Find

It’s time for another series.  For this one, I’d like to focus again on writing but will narrow the focus to sentences—their form and content.  Now don't roll your eyes.  I promise this will be an interesting and informative exercise.  Many of us don’t really think a lot about sentences.  We string them together and hope they tell a good story.  However, sentences are the basic building blocks of our writing and deserve some in-depth scrutiny. 
I began thinking about sentences recently when I came across a book called, appropriately, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One”, by Stanley Fish.  Now, I’m not recommending that you run out to your local bookstore (or to Amazon) and buy this book.  Only those people who are really fascinated with sentence structure will enjoy this book.  If you are, however, one of those people who enjoys collecting and analyzing famous first sentences in literary works, for example, then this book is for you (admittedly, I’m one of these). 
For everyone else, there are a few nuggets in this book that I will try to condense and explain in this and later posts. 
Another caveat: although I will attempt to relate these insights about sentences to technical science writing, I’ll be using a lot of literary examples.  Also, because of the restricted style of scientific writing, some of the ideas I will cover may be difficult (or unwise) to implement in your technical papers.  However, the concepts and exercises may prove useful for developing general writing skills.  Even if you have no plans to write a novel any time soon, you may find the examples interesting and even applicable to writing a nontechnical science article, for instance, or letters of inquiry (for a job application), letters of recommendation, or descriptions of your research interests or accomplishments in your CV. 
So let’s get started. 
One of the first points I’ll be making is definitely applicable to scientific writing.  Above, I mentioned famous first lines in literature and will use this example to make the first point.  When we read a literary work that begins with a beautifully constructed, witty, or intriguing sentence, especially one that takes your breath away, we know that we are in the hands of a master and sink back into our chairs ready to savor what comes next. 
Everyone recognizes the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
That sentence, with its series of contrasting concepts, perfectly foreshadows what is to come in the telling of a story of parallel lives in London and Paris.  One might argue that it’s not the best opening sentence in literature, but it certainly makes an indelible first impression and indicates that the author is about to unfurl an interesting story.
How about a few more, but lesser known, first sentences? Here are some by female authors:
They shoot the white girl first. - Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. - Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. - Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
He - for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it - was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. - Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. - Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. – Flannery O’Connor, Revelation (1965)
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. - Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. - George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. - Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. – Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1953)
You’ll notice I included two by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor (hence the title of this post).  In any case, the point to be taken with these examples is that first sentences, whether in a novel, a short story, or a scientific paper, are important for setting the stage for what comes after.  How many times have you sat down to read a journal article and found the opening statement to be uninteresting, uninspiring, and trite?  How often do such papers go on to surprise you with their insights?  As I’ve described in previous posts, when I do reviews of manuscripts, I pay close attention to the title, the abstract, and the first (and closing) sentence of the paper.  If they are poorly written, with ambiguous wording or other problems, then I anticipate that the remainder of the manuscript is going to be torture to read.  And it will take a dramatic turnaround in the writing (or very important data) to change that initial impression. 
Given the competition for space in journals, authors cannot ignore the fact that they’ve got to not only have good data, they must write memorable papers—and if they are smart, they will start off with a compelling sentence. 
In the next post, I’ll take a look at some first sentences in scientific papers.

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.