by Joshua Foer (Penguin 2011; ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2)
Reading this book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know (always a good thing!). Chief among these is perhaps the fact that before people wrote things down, printed them in books, and saved them in digital format, they did not just naturally have better memories than we do; they learned and practiced techniques that enabled them to remember better. These techniques have mostly been lost to us (blame Gutenberg), but have been revived by a small group of memory experts who practice memorizing things like random numbers, poetry, and the order of cards in a deck, and compete among themselves. These techniques include things like the “person-action-object” system, or PAO, in which the memorizer commits to memory a set of images corresponding to two-digit numbers; for example, Pele kicking a soccer ball. This allows him (most of them seem to be male) to generate a memorable image for each six-digit number (Hillary Clinton talking to a soccer ball). It’s vital that the number be visualizable and unusual (thus memorable). Using this system, memory buffs (some are called “grand masters”) can, with practice, learn to remember any number from 0 to 999,999. (Why you would want to do this is another question.) The point is, there are tricks to remembering stuff, and they can be learned and practiced.
(Another interesting thing I did not know is that the human brain is very good at spatial memory and quite poor at remembering things like phone numbers, passwords, historical dates, and instructions; this is why memory champs employ “memory palaces” (mental images of places they know very well) in which to position their images so as to retrieve them in order without forgetting any.)
Joshua Foer begins with attending the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a science reporter, and he eventually devotes a year to learning and practicing memory techniques so that he can compete in the next championship (I will not divulge the outcome!). Along the way, he digests a lot of information about memory, learning, intelligence, education, history, chick sexing, savants, and more, and passes it on to his readers, making for a fascinating read.
We generally assume that the invention of the printing press, and indeed, the invention of writing itself, has been a good thing; Foer points out that all those external memory devices have their cost. In one of my favorite sections, he quotes Plato quoting Socrates quoting the Egyptian king Thamus (in Phaedra), to whose people the god Theuth offers a writing system which will improve the people’s memories. Thamus declines, saying, If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men. (pg 138) Which is pretty much what happened. Foer observes later that progressive education has made school more interesting and pleasant for children, but in so doing it has left us without the shared memories that enable us to “partake of a shared culture’. He continues, The people whose intellects I most admire always seen to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory, . . . but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. . . . The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. . . . The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. (pgs 208-209) That is certainly true.
However, after all that practice, Foer points out that although he could memorize certain kinds of things (generally ordered lists of something) much better than he had been able to previously, he did not remember other kinds of things (like where he had parked his car, or even a series of colors) any better than he had better. And he very quickly returned to the practice of using external memory aids (post-it notes, to-do lists, cell phone address books) after his year on the memory circuit. But he also believes that a bigger benefit of that year’s training has to do with being mindful and learning to notice things. What I had really trained my brain to do, he writes at the end, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you notice. (pg 268) This brought to mind something someone said on a TV show about forgetfulness that I once saw: it isn’t so much that we forget stuff, but that we never bother to remember it in the first place. It never makes it into our long-term memory.
I could not help remembering, as I read the book, that the reason I started my reading blog, back in 2006, was because I forgot what I had read so quickly after I read it. Apparently, I am not alone in this, in a world in which quantity (how much you read) is more valued than quality (how well you understand and remember what you have read). There is much to be said for questioning our assumptions about reading, understanding, knowing, and remembering.
P.S. Yes, Joshua Foer is Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother. I googled it.