This is among the most enjoyable nonfiction books that I’ve read in recent years. There are three reasons why. First, Joshua Foer’s skill as a writer allows him to explain complicated topics in an easy and memorable way. Second, he forms deep relationships with world-class memorizers and writes about them in such an intimate way that the book can read like a novel. Finally, he explains fundamental memory techniques in such a clear, simple way that you believe you, too, can become a memory champ :)
I grouped interesting highlights into 4 categories:
- The history of memory
- Our brains and behavior
- Memory techniques
- Random trivia
1. THE HISTORY OF MEMORY
Memorization used to be a valued, even revered, skill. Today, memorization is increasingly delegated to technology and is being replaced by the ability to find the right information when you need it
“Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories,” writes Mary Carruthers
Oral poetry was not simply a way of telling lovely or important stories, or of flexing the imagination. It was, argues the classicist Eric Havelock, “a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopedia of ethics, politics, history, and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment.”
Along with page numbers and tables of contents, the index changed what a book was, and what it could do for scholars. The historian Ivan Illich has argued that this represented an invention of such magnitude that “it seems reasonable to speak of the pre- and post-index Middle Ages.” As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory.
People used to read a few books intensively and repeatedly, often committing them to memory (the Bible is the canonical example). Today, we usually read a book once – if we don’t read the CliffsNotes instead – and instead worry about all the books we won’t get to
In his essay “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” says Darnton. “They had only a few books—the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two—and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.”
Today, we read books “extensively,” without much in the way of sustained focus, and, with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Even in the most highly specialized fields, it can be a Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day.
About Wuthering Heights I remember exactly two things: that I read it in a high school English class and that there was a character named Heathcliff. I couldn’t say whether I liked the book or not…We read and read and read, and we forget and forget and forget.
2. OUR BRAINS AND BEHAVIOR
Our memory for imagery is vastly superior to our memory for words. You rarely forget a face, but you’re always forgetting names
He was referring to a frequently cited set of experiments carried out in the 1970s using the exact same picture recognition test that we’d just taken, only instead of thirty images, the researchers asked their subjects to remember ten thousand. (It took a full week to perform the test.) That’s a lot of pictures for a mind to keep track of, especially since the subjects were only able to look at each image once. Even so, the scientists found that people were able to remember more than 80 percent of what they’d seen.
To understand why this sort of mnemonic trick works, you need to know something about a strange kind of forgetfulness that psychologists have dubbed the “Baker/baker paradox.” The paradox goes like this: A researcher shows two people the same photograph of a face and tells one of them that the guy is a baker and the other that his last name is Baker. A couple days later, the researcher shows the same two guys the same photograph and asks for the accompanying word. The person who was told the man’s profession is much more likely to remember it than the person who was given his surname. Why should that be? Same photograph. Same word. Different amount of remembering.
Photographic memory – like the sort implied in Rain Man and other pop culture – doesn’t exist
Even though many people claim to have a photographic memory, there’s no evidence that anyone can actually store mental snapshots and recall them with perfect fidelity.
Photographic memory is often confused with another bizarre—but real—perceptual phenomenon called eidetic memory, which occurs in 2 to 15 percent of children, and very rarely in adults. An eidetic image is essentially a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind’s eye for up to a few minutes before fading away. Children with eidetic memory never have anything close to perfect recall, and they typically aren’t able to visualize anything as detailed as a body of text.
How we experience a unit of time constantly changes. When we do something new, time slows down
In 1962, Siffre spent two months living in total isolation in a subterranean cave, without access to clock, calendar, or sun. Sleeping and eating only when his body told him to, he sought to discover how the natural rhythms of human life would be affected by living “beyond time.” Very quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated. In the dreary darkness, his days melded into one another and became one continuous, indistinguishable blob. At some point he stopped being able to remember what happened even the day before. His experience in isolation had turned him into EP. As time began to blur, he became effectively amnesic. Soon, his sleep patterns disintegrated. Some days he’d stay awake for thirty-six straight hours, other days for eight—without being able to tell the difference.
Sleep is good for you (surprise!)
It’s thought that sleep plays a critical role in this process of consolidating our memories and drawing meaning out of them. Rats that have spent an hour running around a track apparently run through the same track in their sleep, and exhibit the same patterns of neural firings with their eyes closed as when they were learning the mazes in the first place.
If you’re not consistently failing, then you’re not consistently improving
The best chess players follow a similar strategy. They will often spend several hours a day replaying the games of grand masters one move at a time, trying to understand the expert’s thinking at each step. Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he’s played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he’s spent sitting alone working through old games.
If they’re not practicing deliberately, even experts can see their skills backslide. Ericsson shared with me an incredible example of this. Even though you might be inclined to trust the advice of a silver-haired doctor over one fresh out of medical school, it’s been found that in few fields of medicine, doctors’ skills don’t improve the longer they’ve been practicing. The diagnoses of professional mammographers, for example, have a tendency to get less and less accurate over the years. Why would that be? For most mammographers, practicing medicine is not deliberate practice, according to Ericsson. It’s more like putting into a tin cup than working with a coach. That’s because mammographers usually only find out about the accuracy of their diagnoses weeks or months later, if at all, at which point they’ve probably forgotten the details of the case and can no longer learn from their successes and mistakes.
3. MEMORY TECHNIQUES
The Memory Palace – a physical location that you can precisely visualize – is the foundation for many world-class memory techniques
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 the 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 the punishments awaiting the wicked
The four-time U.S. 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.
Studies show that memory champions have normal brains, but the brain’s visual regions are used more
The brains of the mental athletes appeared to be indistinguishable from those of the control subjects. What’s more, on every single test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range. The memory champs weren’t smarter, and they didn’t have special brains.
But there was one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and the control subjects: When the researchers looked at which parts of the brain were lighting up when the mental athletes were memorizing, they found that they were activating entirely different circuitry. According to the functional MRIs, regions of the brain that were less active in the control subjects seemed to be working in overdrive for the mental athletes.
Chunking is the reason why chess grandmasters can quickly memorize board layouts and recreate past games
The twelve-digit numerical string 120741091101 is pretty hard to remember. Break it into four chunks—120, 741, 091, 101—and it becomes a little easier. Turn it into two chunks, 12/07/41 and 09/11/01, and they’re almost impossible to forget. You could even turn those dates into a single chunk of information by remembering it as “the two big surprise attacks on American soil.”
It was as if the chess experts weren’t thinking so much as reacting. When De Groot listened to their verbal reports, he noticed that they described their thoughts in different language than less experienced chess players. They talked about configurations of pieces like “pawn structures” and immediately noticed things that were out of sorts, like exposed rooks. They weren’t seeing the board as thirty-two pieces. They were seeing it as chunks of pieces, and systems of tension.
To remember something like a name or place, convert it into an image. The dirtier or funnier the image, the better
What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I was learning, is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Which is why Tony Buzan tells anyone who will listen that the World Memory Championship is less a test of memory than of creativity. When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.
Here’s a great article on a similar memory technique.
4. RANDOM TRIVIA
When St. Augustine, in the fourth century A.D., observed his teacher St. Ambrose reading to himself without moving his tongue or murmuring, he thought the unusual behavior so noteworthy as to record it in his Confessions
Before they can receive accreditation from London’s Public Carriage Office, cabbies-in-training must spend two to four years memorizing the locations and traffic patterns of all 25,000 streets in the vast and vastly confusing city, as well as the locations of 1,400 landmarks. Their training culminates in an infamously daunting exam called “the Knowledge,” in which they not only have to plot the shortest route between any two points in the metropolitan area, but also name important places of interest along the way. Only about three out of ten people who train for the Knowledge obtain certification.
Americans on the international memory circuit are like Jamaicans on the international bobsledding circuit—easily the most laid-back folks at any competition, and possibly even the most stylish, but on the international stage, we are behind the curve in terms of both technique and training.
That’s it, folks. Hope you learned something! Got any book or article recommendations?
Previous 1-page cheatsheets include:
- Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit
- Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones
- Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code
- Hank Haney’s The Big Miss
- James Fallows’s Postcards from Tomorrow Square
- John Ratey’s Spark
- Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence
Click here to read about the daily habits that I track and why.