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The Art and Science of Memory

Memory is an integral aspect of being human and its immense power is underrated. It affects the way we make decisions, it impacts how we imagine our future, it gives shape to our habits and character, and it’s ultimately the browser history of our lives.

According to Joshua Foer, a freelance journalist who became the USA Memory Champion in 2006 and author of the deeply enriching and fascinating Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, “Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.” 

Memory is described through metaphors like a photograph, a tape recorder, a mirror, or a computer—all suggesting that our mind absorbs what we experience and never lets go. Indeed, according to a 1973 study, researchers presented 10,000 images to participants over a period of 5 days, and participants were able to recall more than 80 percent of them. In a more recent study, the same test was performed with 2,500 images, but rather than the comparisons being easy—a celebrity figure versus a pill—participants had to discern a stack of five dollar bills versus one dollar bills or a green train car versus a red train car, and people remembered 90 percent of them.

The ability to memorize entire bodies of work, speeches, poems, encyclopedias, and books was a prized skill in the past, whereas today, it’s common to correlate rote memorization with school, something that we see as painfully draining and boring.

Foer shares some history on how training the memory was as important as any other subject:

‘King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army,’ Pliny reports. ‘Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people. King Pyrrhus’s envoy Cineas knew those of the Senate and knighthood of Rome the day after his arrival. . . .A person in Greece named Charmadas recited the contents of any volumes in libraries that anyone asked him to quote, just as if he were reading them.’
A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. ‘Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they described as people of superior memories,’ writes Mary Carruthers, the author of two books on the history of memory techniques. Indeed, the single most common theme in the lives of saints—besides their superhuman goodness—is their often extraordinary memories.

What is responsible for this cultural shift? How did a respectable virtue diminish into a habit that’s readily avoided and seen as needless in today’s immediacy of answers and information? Foer explains:

Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.
The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity.”

Foer investigated the 2005 USA Memory Championship event for Slate and became deeply intrigued by what these mental athletes were accomplishing, particularly the reigning champion, Ben Pridmore. According to Foer, he could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 32 seconds; he knew 50,000 digits of pi; in 5 minutes he could memorize the events of 92 historical dates; and he could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour.

Joshua Foer, Photo Cred: https://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do

What truly intrigued Foer was the notion that anyone could learn this kind of memorization. These champions and grand masters were using ancient tactics. Foer explains:

It was simply a matter of learning to ‘think in more memorable ways’ using the ‘extraordinarily simple’ 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the ‘memory palace’ that Simonides of Ceos had supposedly invented in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse.

The techniques of the memory palace—also known as the journey method or method of loci, and more broadly as the ars memorativa, or ‘art of memory’—were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the Middle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Romans senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesmen Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.”

By learning the methods that mental athletes used, Foer committed to the tutelage of these masters to train for the USA Memory Championship, which he won just one year later.

Foer explains the tactic that all masters of memory use:

The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the ‘method of loci’ by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a ‘memory palace.’ Memory palaces don’t necessarily have to be palatial—or even buildings. They can be routes through a town or station stops along a railway, or signs of the zodiac, or even mythical creatures. They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar. The four-time USA memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts as loci to help him memorize the entire 56,000-word, 1,774-page Oxford Chinese-English dictionary. One might have dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of memory palaces, each built to hold a different set of memories.”

Simply put, information wrapped in images that are placed in a journey is the key to remarkable memory. Ever look up when you’re thinking? You’re engaging your mind’s eye. You’re trying to visualize the idea, to see its shape and colors. The more you visualize it, the more you remember it simply because that’s what your brain prefers. What Foer states throughout the book is that if you make the picture funny or even sexual, you’ll likely remember it more, which is why his title reflects a mnemonic that he used in the competition.

The key to making information more memorable requires us to understand what our brains remember best:

In a culture dependent on memory, it’s critical, in the words of Walter Ong, that people ‘think memorable thoughts.’ The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized. The principles that the oral bards discovered, as they sharpened their stories through telling and retelling, were the same basic mnemonic principles that psychologists rediscovered when they began conducting their first scientific experiments on memory around the turn of the twentieth century: Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory. A striped skunk making a slam dunk is a stickier thought than a patterned mustelid engaging in athletic activity.”

Another system is the PAO system. Foer explains how this ancient system is still used today for mental athletes who want to memorize a deck of cards. Here’s how it works:

In the PAO system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object from the third—in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.
Mental athletes memorize decks of playing cards in much the same way, using a PAO system in which each of the fifty-two cards is associated with its own person/action/object image. This allows any triplet of cards to be combined into a single image, and for a full deck to be condensed into just eighteen unique images (52 divided by 3 is 17, with one card left over).”

While all of this may seem useful for performing party tricks, the shaping and reshaping of our memories impacts our behaviors and thinking. Foer shares a profoundly important sentiment:

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory.”

Moonwalking with Einstein is a fabulous read, one that inspired me to re-appreciate the beauty of memory and to understand its vital impact on the human psyche. It’s not a book that taught me how to memorize a deck of cards, but a book that taught me how to better employ and leverage an incredible function of my mind. (His TED Talk here.)