Life & Culture

Revealed: how to have a great memory

Joshua Foer trained himself to become US national memory champion.


Thanks to Joshua Foer I have several images floating around my head that I cannot get rid of. These include Claudia Schiffer swimming in a giant tub of cottage cheese, a man sitting on a toilet wearing only a snorkel and Paul Newman in my kitchen chopping elk sausages.

When I tell Foer of my predicament he immediately sympathises. The 29-year-old has just published Moonwalking with Einstein, in paperback, which analyses the capability and functions of the human memory. It also tells the story of how journalistic curiosity about memory contests persuaded him to enter - and ultimately win - the 2006 United States National Memory Championships.

During his journey, Foer achieved what most of us would consider prodigious feats of memory, including memorising a shuffled pack of playing cards in one minute and 40 seconds. He puts his success in the championships down to memory techniques he was taught by his mentor, British memory champion Ed Cooke.

The first challenge that Cooke set him was to learn a 15-item shopping list, including the aforementioned cottage cheese, snorkel and elk sausages, by constructing what is known as a memory palace (see panel) and coming up with bizarre and memorable associations - hence the stubborn presence of Claudia Schiffer and Paul Newman in my brain.

These tools are not new - in fact most of them date back thousands of years. Says Foer: "In the middle ages, for example, the word genius was practically reserved for people with great memories. Back then, just about the only way to record something was to preserve it in your memory. These ancient memory techniques still work, and they do so by taking advantage of some fundamental principles about how our brains function."

Handy reminder

Most memory techniques work because they take advantage of our impressive spatial memory. Whereas remembering number sequences and lists of names is difficult, we all have the capacity to remember minute details of places we have visited. Hence, the concept of the memory palace.
This can be any physical space - for example, the house you grew up in - which is imprinted in your memory. So if you wish to remember a shopping list, all you need to do is place an item in each room of your memory palace. Making those images bizarre or sexual will help reinforce the memory.
To recall the shopping list, mentally move in and out of the rooms of your memory palace and the various items will be summoned up.

The book has had some unexpected consequences for Foer, the youngest of three talented brothers (his siblings are New Republic editor Franklin Foer and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer). Firstly, his success in the memory tournament meant he ended up representing the US in the World Memory Championships. Secondly, his proposal for Moonwalking with Einstein was snapped up by publishers with an astonishing £1.2 million advance. The film rights were also quickly sold.

Foer had misgivings as he was declared the champion. "My first reaction was that it really screwed up the reporting I'd already done - it changed the narrative. But on reflection I don't think the book would have got the same amount of attention if it had just been about other people. Making myself a character made it a more compelling story."

However, Moonwalking with Einstein is about more than a stunt. In it, Foer explains the progression of memory techniques which started with Cicero and have developed through the ages. He also looked into case studies, including that of a journalist who remembered every word ever spoken to him. This was not because he had a photographic memory - a myth, according to most scientists - but because he suffered an acute form of synaesthesia, in which every word pulled up an associated and compelling image.

Foer also interviewed a man known by the initials EP who, after falling victim to a brain disease, completely lost the ability to remember anything for more than a few minutes. "Meeting EP was revelatory in that he was the perfect natural experiment. He showed me what memory was good for. He didn't become a vegetable, but he lived a hollow kind of existence. Here was someone who couldn't remember anything, including the fact he had a memory problem. He could only live in the present so there was no progression to his life. He was living an existential nightmare."

Foer believes the sum total of our experiences come together to form our essential humanity. But we no longer need to store facts and figures in the way we used to.

"In the past, these types of memory were commonplace. For example, there was a major psychology paper written about a group of eastern European talmudic scholars who memorised the entire Torah verbatim. Nowadays, thanks to technology, we can access facts instantly. I use my emails as a kind of external memory. Twitter and Facebook can also be used in this way. In the future, it will almost certainly be possible to record our entire lives on hard-drive. It will change what it is to be human."

But are we losing something by not using our memories to their full potential? Foer ponders for a moment. "I do think there is a tendency to become lazy. Training my memory somehow made me more mindful and more aware of how and when to push myself.

"The good news is that we Jews can always unplug on Shabbat and use our memories instead - until, that is, someone invents a Shabbat-friendly Kindle," he laughs.

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