How to im­prove your mem­ory

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

As the ti­tle sug­gests, this book is a romp through mem­ory tricks over time — the more outrageous the imag­i­na­tion, the bet­ter the re­sults. Joshua Foer is a young In­ter­net jour­nal­ist who writes so charm­ingly that he al­most con­vinces you that ev­ery­one should, or could, be­come a “men­tal ath­lete” with a mem­ory to amaze. In­deed, he spent three years re­search­ing and writ­ing this book more or less as a lark, dur­ing which time he learned so much from Euro­pean ex­perts (they’re bet­ter than Amer­i­cans) that he ended up win­ning the 2006 U.S. Mem­ory Cham­pi­onship (but flunked the Euro­pean equiv­a­lent).

His tri­umph is im­pres­sive, but in the Google era, how many peo­ple are in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing the time nec­es­sary to learn how to set up “mem­ory palaces” into which they can men­tally place ob­jects from an ar­bi­trary list for later re­call, or to mem­o­rize shuf­fled packs of cards in or­der to as­ton­ish their friends? And the au­thor’s ca­sual “I had once read that the av­er­age per­son squanders about forty days a year com­pen­sat­ing for things he or she has for­got­ten” be­comes the first un­qual­i­fied claim on the jacket. Who says?

Mr. Foer writes that his book is about “how I learned first­hand that our mem­o­ries are in­deed im­prov­able, within lim­its. It is also about the sci­en­tific study of ex­per­tise, and how re­searchers who study mem­ory cham­pi­ons have dis­cov­ered gen­eral prin­ci­ples of skill ac­qui­si­tion — se­crets to im­prov­ing at just about any­thing — from how men­tal ath­letes train their brains.”

The au­thor be­gan re­search­ing his book early in his jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer while liv­ing in his par­ents’ base­ment, and his en­thu­si­asm mor­phed into an ob­ses­sion. He fell un­der the spell of Ben Prid­more, the “tem­po­rar­ily unem­ployed” reign­ing world mem­ory cham­pion, who could mem­o­rize the or­der of a shuf­fled deck of play­ing cards in 32 sec­onds and who knew pi to 50,000 dig­its. (There’s al­ways some­body out there who is able to do more — like the Ja­panese mnemonist who learned pi to more than 80,000 dig­its.)

Mr. Foer says that Ro­mans such as Cicero and Quin­til­ian (from His­pania) cod­i­fied the tech­niques of the “jour­ney method” of mem­ory train­ing that has been res­ur­rected by Tony Buzan, an idio­syn­cratic Brit who founded the World Mem­ory Cham­pi­onship in 1991. It was Mr. Buzan who chal­lenged Mr. Foer to learn the tech­niques many Amer­i­cans have been ex­posed to in Dale Carnegie cour­ses, telling him that win­ning the cham­pi­onship was less a test of mem­ory than of creativ­ity.

To re­mem­ber num­bers, Mr. Foer first used the “ma­jor” sys­tem, a sim­ple code by which num­bers are con­verted into pho­netic sounds, which are then turned into words that can be­come im­ages for a “mem­ory palace.”

Mr. Foer found this sys­tem, which dates from the 17th cen­tury, use­ful for mem­o­riz­ing his credit card and bank ac­count num­bers. But to com­pete in in­ter­na­tional mem­ory com­pe­ti­tions, he had to learn the “per­son-ac­tion-ob­ject” sys­tem (PAO), a far more com­plex sys­tem that “ef­fec­tively gen­er­ates a unique im­age for ev­ery num­ber from 0 to 999,999.”

The PAO sys­tem also en­ables “men­tal ath­letes” to mem­o­rize decks of cards by as­so­ci­at­ing each card 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).”

Here is how Mr. Foer de­scribes his sys­tem for rec­ol­lect­ing the lat­ter half of a deck of cards in the U.S. mem­ory cham­pi­onship competition: “I saw Jerry Se­in­feld sprawled out bleed­ing on the hood of a Lam­borgh­ini in the hall­way (five of hearts, ace of di­a­monds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my par­ents’ bed­room door, my­self moon­walk­ing with Ein­stein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of di­a­monds).”

With the competition be­hind him, Mr. Foer con­fesses that he only spo­rad­i­cally uses the tech­niques he learned to mem­o­rize phone num­bers of peo­ple he wanted to call — “it was just too sim­ple to punch them into my cell­phone.” Still, he ar­gues that the value of mem­ory train­ing is not just to re­mem­ber but to “get in the habit of notic­ing and ap­pre­ci­at­ing.”

If ex­er­cis­ing your imag­i­na­tion in the ser­vice of test­ing your mem­ory is your bag, this book is for you.

Priscilla S. Tay­lor, a writer and edi­tor in McLean, edited Phi Beta Kappa’s quar­terly Key Re­porter for 18 years.

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