Biggest Take Away:
It works! It really works! I tried the techniques in the book and I was actually able to improve my memory!
Now... If only I could remember where I put the car keys..."Tom! Have you seen the car keys?!"
I would describe my memory as pretty poor, borderline absurdly so at times. I often get through the first half of a film before realizing I’ve seen it before, I rely completely on to-do lists and my Google calendar, and I often forget peoples’ names seconds after hearing them. Yet, I can tell you my best friend’s childhood phone number, my postal code from when I lived in the UK, and put me in a room with 30 people and by the end I can get every single one of them, including myself, to memorize each other's names in under 15 mins. How can the two seemingly opposite ends of the memory spectrum be true in one person?
I don’t believe I’m alone in the struggle to both understand why my memory seems to be shockingly terrible at times and to wonder if there is any way to improve it lest I turn into a goldfish in my not-yet-so golden years. Hence a book that tots the ability to remember everything.
In Moonwalking with Einstein, we follow the author, Joshua Foer, as he goes from a normal everyday journalist covering the US Memory Competition (yes, this is a thing), to competing in the very same competition only a year later and *SPOILERS* taking 1st place!
Foer approaches his pursuit and understanding of memory from a variety of angles. We learn about brain science, hear stories of people with exceptional memory and those who have no short term memory whatsoever, all while learning the techniques used by the world's best Mental Athletes, and Foer himself, as he trains to compete against them. It’s a lot of information superbly communicated through a relatable series of the author’s own experiences.
These Mental Athletes (MA), a term often used to describe the competitors in Memory Competitions, are no closer to genius status than you or I. In fact, Foer almost goes out of his way to depict the MAs as normal everyday people' as he befriends, and is mentored by them. Though I don’t expect the average person would commit themselves to practicing these memorization techniques for hours each day, I found Foer’s new friends easily relatable. That is, afterall, the point Foer is trying to get across: anyone can learn these simple techniques and improve their memory. You do not need to be a genius.
Those of you who have watched the modern Sherlock Holmes television series with Benedict Cumberbatch, will be familiar with Holmes’ memory (or mind) palace: the extremely detailed hall of room in his mind where he stores all of his memories. Believe it or not this is exactly the technique that MAs use to memorize dozens of packs of cards in one sitting, twenty stranger’s names, occupation and favourite colours, and a variety of other memory tasks set out at these competitions.
Before we get right into the techniques themselves, it will be helpful to understand a bit about how our memory works. Our memory can be broken up into two parts: short term (or working) memory and long term memory. Our working memory can only hold about seven things at a time, plus or minus two. This means we can really only hold five to nine thoughts in our minds at any given moment, while the rest get shoved out of our brains. This act of forgetting allows us to filter out all the unnecessary information so that our brains can actually process the important information that filters in.
There are a couple of easy ways in which we can turn working memory into long term memory: by using phonological loops, and by using a technique called chunking.
Using a phonological loop is the most common way we are taught to remember things. You simply repeat the information over and over again until it is burned into your memory. This technique works, however, it’s not the most efficient, nor the most effective way to remember things.
Chunking refers to the process of taking individual pieces of information and grouping them into larger units or chunks. The best example of chunking is how we break up our phone numbers or how our credit card numbers are split into groups of four numbers. Chunking is the superior technique as it allows you to increase the amount of information you can remember at one time. Think: less is more.
So, now that we have our chunks how do we get them to really stick? This is where the memory palaces come in handy. A memory palace can be any location that you know intimately which you have committed to memory. You should be able to see it very clearly in your mind's eye. This is where your memories will live.
Now, it’s not enough to simply stick a memory in one of these rooms and expect it to simply be there waiting for you next time you call on it. Memory is a right brain task, so the more vivid and memorable the image is, the better. For example, when people are introduced to two people: the first is called John Baker, and the second is called Dan and he is an actual baker by profession, most people will easily be able to remember Dan the baker. This is because the surname Baker doesn’t conjure up any visual imagery, whereas when you think of a baker you might have a very clear image in your mind of what a baker looks like, big white hat and all.
THIS. IS. THE. KEY!
To really make your memories stick you need to find some really strong imagery linked to whatever it is you’re trying to remember. The more outrageous, the better. For example, if you are trying to remember to pick up eggs, you might place the image of your best friend laying an egg in one of the rooms in your memory palace.
The techniques are easy, but even Foer himself admits that the ability to remember everything, as the title promotes, requires mindful awareness of what you are trying to remember. He spent a whole year of his life practicing for a few hours each day in order to claim the Memory Competition title. Is it necessary to actually remember everything? I don’t think so. However, with a little bit of effort and practice I’m sure I’ll track those keys down...some day.