Imagine comedian Dom Deluise performing the following impolite and violent acts in your living room: he spits at Albert Einstein and karate kicks the pope in the groin. In the next room Michael Jackson defecates on a salmon burger and Terry Bradshaw balances on a wheelchair. Does your memory feel any better? Well, it should. This “tawdry tableau” was enough to help journalist Joshua Foer win the 2006 United States Memory Championship. And it just might help you, too.
Josh Foer, the youngest son in the Foer literary triumvirate, recently published his debut bestseller “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”. The book relates his journey from journalist to memory enthusiast to U.S. Memory Champ, a story rich with technique, eloquence, and a community of “memorizers” so nerdy they make the Stuy Math Team look like the football team. This is the story of a normal guy with an average memory who, with the help of a research team and an enthusiastic coach, learns to transform his memory into the nation’s best.
The main strategy Foer uses is called the “memory palace,” based on a technique created by the Ancient Greek poet Simonides of Creos. The memory palace involves envisioning a familiar house or building and “walking” through it, all the while imagining different mnemonic images around the house.
In an event at the United States Memory Championship, Foer memorized the order of 52 playing cards in less than two minutes by associating them with the images of Michael Jackson passing gas and Albert Einstein doing the moonwalk. Each image was mentally situated in a different location around his childhood home. To remember the order of the deck, he took a virtual stroll through the house.
“The art in all of this is in figuring out how to make things you don’t care about […] so colorful, attention-grabbing, and meaningful that you can’t forget them,” Foer said. In a crowded lecture at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, Foer explained to a captivated audience that the most attention-grabbing images are usually bizarrely sexual or absurdly comical, and often involve celebrities acting strangely. The things we remember best are side-splitting, out-of-the-ordinary occurrences—not something routine like brushing your teeth.
Memory guru Tony Buzan is in the process of popularizing these techniques and applying them to practical ends. His ultimate goal is to bring the memory palace to classrooms world-over. While most people do not need to memorize series of historical dates or countless trigonometric formulas, high school students are an exception to the rule. For our hectic, fact-filled academic lives, memory techniques could use a revival.
I asked Josh Foer for his opinion on memorization in academics. He replied, “We spend so much [time] teaching kids what to remember, but not how to remember it.” While some things like essay writing or conversational Spanish obviously cannot be taught through rote memorization, vocabulary and history test scores could definitely improve with the help of mnemonic devices or a memory palace.
When Foer first became interested in competitive memorizing, Ed Cooke, an eccentric young British world memory champ who later became his coach, told him anybody could do what he did. All you needed to memorize a series of unrelated factoids is a creative erotic imagination. It seemed too good to be true; just by having a dirty mind, could you really memorize anything?
Soon after February break, I had to write an in-class history essay about Stalin’s Russia. We were told to incorporate seven concepts into our essays: industrialization, purge trials, propaganda, collectivization of agriculture, the Ukrainian Famine, women’s rights, and Stalin’s five-year plans. Like any hardworking Stuyvesant student, I didn’t even glance at the terms over the break and was now facing the challenge of memorizing them all in one day. With Ed’s advice in mind, I set out to test the “anybody can do it” aspect of memory.
The night before the essay, I tried to create a memory palace of my own and associate an outlandish image with each concept. I was walking through my house: Stalin was swimming in the washing machine (industrialization/five-year plans); Jerry Seinfeld popped out of the oven (purge trials); the Incredible Hulk dunked a basketball in the dining room lamp (propaganda); Wayne Gretzky skated with a broomstick across living room (agriculture); Mickey Rourke jumped rope in the foyer (famine); and Barbra Streisand sang loudly into a hairbrush outside my front door (women’s rights). In spite of (or maybe because of) how crazy the memory palace was, it worked, and I remembered every term for the essay.
The act of applying memory to knowledge and education is what makes it invaluable—not memorizing terms to ace a test, but expanding our knowledge and understanding of the world through greater stores of information. While facts alone do not suffice as knowledge, the ability to appreciate them does.
According to Foer, this is the goal of the memory palace. This is about figuring out how to make things relatable and relevant to you so that you can remember them. This is about making connections. This is about gaining insight into our minds and the knowledge of how to use them. As Foer said, “That’s real knowledge, not just a parlor trick.”