The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
While researching an article on the US Memory Championships, writer Joshua Foer was equally dubious and intrigued by one contestant’s claim that even an average memory, if used properly, could win the contest. After a year of memory training, under the tutelage of the world’s top memory athletes, he won the competition. Foer uses a live demonstration to show that there’s much more room in our brains than we imagine. Using skills he learned on his extraordinary odyssey, he shows the science of memory and teaches us how we can all learn to remember more.
When science journalist Joshua Foer investigated the minds of competitors at the United States Memory Championship, he expected the people performing seemingly miraculous feats of memory to be the savants of our time. Instead of off-the-chart IQs, though, he discovered ordinary people who devoted a lot of time to a specific skill. And what researchers later discovered about the brains of memory champs probably isn’t what you expect:
Cognitive abilities and brain structures weren’t that different in memory champs. Rather, memory champs were tapping in to regions of the brain associated with visual and spatial memory.
All our brains are trained — without us realizing it — to better remember certain things through tricks and associations, says Joshua Foer. But that can lead us, ironically, to not remember other things as well. Foer gets the audience involved to demonstrate how these tricks work and how memory champs take advantage of them:
Why is it that if you tell someone to remember a man named Baker, they’re less likely to remember that same person than if you tell them that the man is a baker by trade? Psychologists call this question the Baker/baker paradox, and it’s rooted in a psychological principle called elaborative encoding.
Memory Association 101
It’s easier to remember that someone is a baker than if they’re named Baker because of elaborative encoding — most of us already have a memory association with bakers, but not Bakers. Joshua Foer says this technique of elaborative encoding, turning Bakers into bakers, is fundamental to tackling feats of memory.
Modern-day memory champs aren’t trailblazing new memory techniques, says Joshua Foer. They’re learning the same spatial and visual techniques that have been in use for millennia. Foer demonstrates, with eager audience participation, a powerful (and ancient) memory technique called the memory palace:
It all leads back to visual and spatial associations, says Foer. When you picture a familiar place and insert new information into it, the familiar place acts as a crutch to support a new memory in your mind.