How many of your friends' phone numbers can you dictate from memory? Can you list all of Canada's Prime Ministers? Do you recall the names of all the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird or any other book you read in high school?
Why bother remembering when you can simply check the contact list on your cellphone or do a quick Google search? That's how science writer Joshua Foer carried on in life, until he found himself at the U.S. Memory Championships in 2005. He thought he'd stumbled into a roomful of savants, of freaks of nature, who could memorize complex strings of numbers and commit a deck of cards to memory in mere minutes. Competitors said they had average memories and had simply learned techniques to unleash their brains' potential.
A year later, Mr. Foer returned to the competition as a participant and walked away with the title of U.S. memory champion. In his first book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, he examines the role of memorization in ancient civilizations and how its value was eroded by technological advancement. He also explains the techniques he used to turn his forgetful mind into a powerful, mnemonically driven tool. He spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in New Haven, Conn.
One of the main memorization models you used in training competitions was the memory palace. I think it would be a good place to start to explain what that technique is.
The memory palace is a technique that was invented in ancient Greece. It involves imagining a building in your mind, populating that building with images of what you want to remember. So, if you were trying to remember a list of words, you might put an image of the first word in front of your front door of your house. An image of the second word just inside the front door. You walk through your house scattering images as you move and then when it comes time to recall, you walk back through that building in your mind's eye and the images will be where you left them.
What is it about those spatial markers that come to us easier than other memorization techniques?
If you were to visit the home of a friend that you've never been to before and take a walk around for a few minutes. You walk out of the house knowing where the bathroom is, where the kitchen was, where the furniture was. You actually have a whole lot of information … we gobble up this kind of spatial information. It's something we're good at. The idea behind the memory palace is to take that sort of spatial memory that we have, which we're so good at, and use to remember things that we're not so good at.
You spent a lot of time trying to understand what it takes to become an expert. What is it that separates strong amateurs from the master class when it comes to actual training?
We all sort of reach this point, [with]almost any skill that we try to acquire, where we basically decide we're just okay enough at what we're doing; we've moved the skill back to our mind's filing cabinet and basically turn on autopilot. It happens when we learn to drive a car, it happens when we learn how to write, it happens when we learn how to do just about anything. And the key to getting better at a task is to actually practise, not in autopilot mode. Be constantly forcing yourself beyond your comfort level and figuring out why it is that you're failing in the way that you're failing and then see if you can come up with ways of correcting those failures.
You were taking notes throughout the training and marking different stages of achievement and things you needed to work on.
Basically when I started this, one thing I was told by … this one scientist from Florida State University that I worked with was to keep abundant data. And to constantly be looking at it. And try to figure out where my weakness were and how to perform better. And to go at this in a really rigorous, focused way. So, yeah, I had a spreadsheet on my computer. Any time I tried to remember something I'd plug it in and keep a note. … And that I think ended up being one of my secret weapons when I ended up actually competing in this contest.