How I Became a Master of Memory

writer stretches his mind and earns a place 
at the World Memory 

By Joshua FoerOct 6, 2011 12:00 AM


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Before he became an elite “mental athlete,” journalist Joshua Foer traveled to Oxford University in 2005 to report on the World Memory Championships for DISCOVER. There he watched contestants memorize ridiculously long strings of random digits, the names and faces of hundreds of strangers, and line after line of bad poetry. Most of the top memorizers, Foer realized then, rely on the same technique: building a “memory palace” in their mind’s eye and populating it with absurd but distinctive images that they can associate with the number or word that must be recalled. Inspired, he spent a year mastering the technique and exploring the meaning of memory for a book,

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. As his narrative makes clear, he became more than just a reporter. In front of a stunned audience at the next year’s U.S.A. Memory Championship, held in New York City, Foer memorized the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 1 minute 40 seconds, then a U.S. record, and went on to win the event.

Photo credit: Emil Salman/Haaretz | NULL

The U.S.A. Memory Champion turns out to be a minor (OK, very minor) celebrity. All of a sudden, Ellen DeGeneres wanted to talk to me, and Good Morning America and the Today show were calling to ask if I’d memorize a deck of cards on the air. ESPN wanted to know if I’d learn the NCAA tournament brackets for one of its morning shows. Everyone wanted to see the monkey perform his tricks.

But the biggest shock of my newfound stardom (or loserdom, depending on your perspective, I suppose) was that I was now the official representative of all 300 million citizens of the United States of America to the World Memory Championships. This was not a position I had ever expected to be in. At no point during my training did it ever occur to me that I might someday go head-to-head with the superheroes of memory I had initially set out to write about. In all my hours of training, I hardly ever thought to compare my practice scores with theirs. I was a beer league softball right fielder; they were the New York Yankees.

When I showed up in London at the end of August that year, I brought along earmuffs (because in the heat of a mem­ory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough), which I’d painted with Captain America stars and stripes; 14 decks of playing cards I would try to memorize in the hour cards event; and a Team USA T-shirt. My principal ambition was simply not to embarrass myself or my country. I also set myself two secondary goals: to finish in the top 10 of the 36-
person field and to earn the ranking of Grandmaster of Memory.

As it turned out, both goals were beyond my reach. As the official representative of the greatest superpower on earth, I’m afraid to say I gave the world an entirely mediocre impression of America’s collective memory. Though I learned a respectable nine and a half decks of cards in an hour (half a deck short of the Grandmaster standard), my score in hour numbers was a humiliating 380 digits (620 short of Grandmaster). I did manage a third-place showing in names and faces, an accomplishment I chalked up to the fact that the packet of names we’d been given to memorize was a veritable United Nations of ethnic monikers. Coming from the most multicultural country in the world, I found few of them unfamiliar. Overall, I finished in 13th place out of the 37 competitors, behind just about every German, Austrian, and Brit—but, I’m pleased to say, ahead of the French guy.

A few nights after the world championships, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as I was walking in the door to my house that I’d driven a car to dinner. I hadn’t just forgotten where I parked it. I’d forgotten I had it.

That was the paradox: For all of the memory stunts I could now perform, I was still stuck with the same old shoddy memory that misplaced car keys and cars. Even while I had greatly expanded my powers of recall for the kinds of structured information that could be crammed into a memory palace, most of the things I wanted to remember in my everyday life were not facts or figures or poems or playing cards or binary digits. Yes, I could memorize the names of a couple dozen people at a cocktail party, and that was surely useful. And you could give me a family tree of English monarchs, or the terms of the American secretaries of the interior, or the dates of every major battle in World War II, and I could learn that information relatively quickly, and even hold on to it awhile. These skills would have been a godsend in high school. But life, for better or worse, only occasionally resembles high school.

Could it really be said that my working memory was twice as good as it had been when I started my training? I wish I could say it was. But the truth is, it wasn’t. When asked to recall the order of, say, a series of random inkblots or color swatches, or the clearance to the doorway to my parent’s cellar, I was no better than average. Any kind of information that couldn’t be neatly converted into an image and dropped into a memory palace was just as hard for me to retain as it had always been. I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed to have remained fundamentally unchanged.

And yet, clearly I had changed. Or at least how I thought about myself had changed. The most important lesson I took away from my year on the competitive memory circuit was not the secret to learning poetry by heart, but rather something far more global and, in a way, far more likely to be of service in my life. My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.

When I started on this journey, I didn’t know where it would lead, or how thoroughly it would take over my life, or how it would eventually alter me. But after learning how to memorize poetry and numbers, cards and biographies, I’m convinced that remembering more is only one of the benefits of the many months I spent training my memory. What I really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can happen only if you decide to take notice.

I confess that I never got good enough at filling memory palaces on the fly to feel comfortable throwing out my Dictaphone and notebook. And as someone whose job requires knowing a little bit about a lot, my reading habits are necessarily too extensive to be able to practice more than the occasional intensive reading and memorizing. Though I committed quite a few poems to heart using memory techniques, I still haven’t tackled a work of literature longer than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Once I’d reached the point where I could squirrel away more than 30 digits a minute in memory palaces, I still only sporadically used the techniques to memorize the phone numbers of people I actually wanted to call. I found it was just too simple to punch them into my cell phone. Occasionally I’d memorize shopping lists, or directions, or to-do lists, but only in the rare circumstances when there wasn’t a pen available to jot them down. It’s not that the techniques don’t work. I am walking proof that they do. It’s that it is so hard to find occasion to use them in the real world in which paper, computers, cell phones, and Post-its can handle the task of remembering for me.

So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from a man whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: 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, or invention, or insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Someday in the distant cyborg future, when our internal and external memories fully merge, we may come to possess infinite knowledge. But that’s not the same thing as wisdom. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate the memories in our brains, the ones that make us who we are, that are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of second-rate poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s actually exactly the point. Memory training is not just for the sake of performing a geeky party trick; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.

Mastering the Memory Palace

Mental athletes insist that anyone can do what they do. It is simply a matter of learning to think in more memorable ways using the simple 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the memory palace.

The principle underlying all memory techniques is that the human brain does not remember all types of information equally well. As exceptional as we are at retaining visual imagery, we’re terrible at remembering other kinds of information, like lists of words or numbers. But just about anything that can be imagined can be imprinted upon one’s memory and kept in good order simply by engaging one’s spatial memory in the act of remembering. All one has to do is convert something unmemorable—like a string of numbers, a deck of cards, a shopping list, or Paradise Lost—into a series of engrossing visual images and then mentally arrange them within an imagined space, a memory palace. Suddenly those forgettable items become unforgettable.

Remembering numbers proved to be one of the real-world applications of the memory palace that I relied upon almost every day. I used a technique known as the Major System, invented in 17th-century Europe. The Major System is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace. It works like this:

 0 1 2 3 4

 S T or D NM  R

 5 6 7 8 9

 L Sh or Ch L or G F or VP or B

The number 32, for example, would translate into M-N, 33 would be M-M, and 34 would be M-R. To make those consonants meaningful, you’re allowed to freely intersperse vowels. So the number 32 might turn into an image of a man, 33 could be your mom, and 34 might be the Russian space station Mir. Similarly, the number 86 might be a fish, 40 a rose, and 92 a pen. You might visualize 3219 as a man (32) playing a tuba (19), or maybe a person from Manitoba. Likewise, 7879 would translate to KFKP, which might turn into a single image of a coffee cup or two images of a calf and a cub. The advantage of the Major System is that it is straightforward, and you can begin using it right out of the box. (When I first learned it, I immediately memorized my credit card and bank account numbers.)  —J. F.

From MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN by Joshua Foer. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Joshua Foer, 2011.

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