Joshua Foer was crowned US memory champion after training for just one year. Anyone can learn the same tricks—but is it worth doing?by Elizabeth Pisani / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
A drawing created by Samuel R Wells in 1870 for his book How to Read Character
We’re in a bar in Dalston. No smoking, of course, so no matchbooks to scribble a phone number on. It’s so long since I memorised one that I know better than to try, especially after several pink drinks. I proffer the inside of my wrist. My young companion looks at me blankly. “Write your number here,” I say. He shakes his head, unsure I still deserve it. “That is so LAME.” He asks my number, calls my mobile; I save his number under the name “Pete Superstore” or some such. There it will sit, along with “Angela Tango” and “Resty Fishnet,” until I either get to know him well enough to remember his surname or I delete him along with the other random numbers that have entered my phone without their owners entering my consciousness.
In his new book Moonwalking With Einstein (Penguin), Joshua Foer teaches us tricks to remember phone numbers, and even their owners’ names—at least until we have a chance to write them down on a matchbook. His book, misleadingly subtitled The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, deals mostly with a handful of well-established methods for remembering numbers and sequences of playing cards. It is nonetheless delightful. Foer meanders through a history of memory, from the oral traditions of the Greek bards to the thankfully-not-yet-realised merging of neurons and nanochips by way of the intermediate technologies: stone tablets, scrolls, manuscripts, printed books, indexed volumes, searchable electronic files, the Googlenet.
With each new technology, our ability to outsource the functions of memory has grown. For information to be useful over the long term, it has to be both stored and retrievable. Marble slabs are pretty good for long-term storage—much less likely to be ruined by a wayward coffee cup than a CD-Rom—but not terribly searchable. The papyrus scrolls of the Greeks were at least more portable but they were WRITTENALLASSINGLEWORDINCAPSWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATIONANDWITH
RANDOMLINEBREAKSANDREALLYHARDTOREADLETALONESEARCH. Indexing allowed us to find information in a book without having read the whole thing, but we still had to keep enough data in our heads to tell us which books to look in. Now, most of us have freed up the space in our brains that was given over to phone numbers, appointments and train timetables by leaving the information on some electronic device or other and accessing it only when we need to. Soon, poetry, literature and even the historical performance of sports teams will go the same way.
Foer, a journalist in his early twenties, was writing an article about the tribe of (mostly) young men who buck the trend of outsourced memory and enter competitions to show off how much data they can keep in their heads. He got sucked in to their bizarre world of random numbers, name-to-face pairing and the memorisation of unmemorable verse. The attraction was not the free drinks that flow from being able to recall the order of all 52 cards in a shuffled deck after looking at them for under a minute. It was the fact that the cocky blokes on the circuit (most of them British or Germanic) claimed there was nothing to it, that any old monkey could learn to do it.
Foer set himself to the task. Within a year, he became US memory champion.
Participants at the 2007 US memory competition
Like the other memory athletes, Foer uses a variation of a system attributed to Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet who lived some 500 years before Christ. It’s based on the fact that humans are better at remembering specific images than abstracts such as numbers. Foer creates a physical space in his mind, a “memory palace,” and populates it with vivid images of recognisable people doing loopy things—the supermodel Claudia Schiffer frolicking naked in a tub of cottage cheese, for example, or Foer himself moonwalking with Einstein. For standard competitions, for which you have to recall random numbers or the order of playing cards, these images are prepared beforehand during hours of training. A person, an object and an action are combined into one “sticky” image that corresponds to a particular card or two-digit number.
David Beckham peeling potatoes might be the jack of hearts, for example, Johnny Depp kissing me is the two of diamonds, Mickey Mouse eating a string bean is the ten of clubs. When memorising the order of cards in a pack you mash the person from the first with the action of the second and the object of the third. This allows you to remember three cards, in order, with a single image, which you put in a specific place in your memory palace. If the first three cards are the jack of hearts, two of diamonds and ten of clubs, you visualise David Beckham kissing a string bean, and put him in the first location, the driveway of your palace perhaps. You hope that the image will stick with you while you form the 17 mash-ups that represent the other 49 cards, so you can retrieve it when you stroll through the memory palace and read back. Although many memorisers favour sexual imagery, it restricts the people you can include. The image of your mother baking cookies is fine, but when it gets mashed up with oral sex and an orang-utan, it can prove too distracting.
The best competitors can memorise a pack of cards in around 25 seconds. Grand, but it seems like an awful lot of work. It doesn’t surprise me that when the 16th-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci tried to teach Simonides’s system to Chinese mandarins, who attained their position by learning the Confucian canon by rote, they thought it too much trouble. Perhaps their part-visual, part-phonetic script is an aid to memory in itself. And perhaps some of them believed that it was worth learning the canon as a source of wisdom, reflection or mental stimulation, rather than as a party trick, and that they should therefore remember the essence, not just the words.
Foer does reflect on this, though not until surprisingly late in the book, when he finds himself sitting in his undies at 6.45am wearing earmuffs and dark glasses to blank out anything that might distract him from a sheet of random numbers. Are his abilities ultimately a peacock’s tail, impressive but useless? He concludes not, defending memory as essential for the acquisition of information, a spiderweb of old facts which give context to new facts and allow them to stick. He is frustratingly unwilling to expound on the distinction between memories and knowledge, using them almost synonymously. They are not the same.
I learn poems because they evoke images and emotions that I want as part of my mental spiderweb. I’m happy if a painting of an arch by Turner I see in some random provincial gallery evokes the ageing Ulysses’s untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever when I move, in turn evoking Hamlet’s undiscovered country, in turn evoking… But I’m not sure how that happens if, to memorise Tennyson or Shakespeare, I need to turn each line into a series of images of garden gnomes driving sport cars across my doctor’s kitchen table.
After his victory in the US and his predictable humiliation in the international contest (where America always scores poorly) an Austrian Grand Master of Memory suggested to Joshua Foer that he could probably put his mind to better use. By writing this empathetic, thought-provoking and probably memorable book, he has.