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Tag Archives: Joshua Foer

Remembering More of Everything: The Memory Palace

“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’
it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.”

— Joshua Foer


That’s a quote from the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the fascinating account of Joshua Foer’s journey investigating memory.

What starts as a routine piece of writing ends with his participation in the USA Memory Championships. While interviewing contestants for the article he was told that anyone could have a memory like these champions if they trained properly. Intrigued, Foer decided to give it a try.

The journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle, and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level. Did that make the brains of these “mental athletes” physically different from yours or mine?

Foer found research where MRI was used to compare the memory specialists’ brains to those of a control group. There was no difference between the brain structure of the two. However, during the act of memorizing, the regions of the brain which “lit up” were completely different. 

Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation.

It turns out the mental athletes were purposefully converting the information they were memorizing into images, and then placing these images into a mentally constructed “palace” — thus the involvement of visual memory and spatial navigation.

Foer goes into great (and fascinating) detail regarding the science of memory (which we’ve covered some before). However, let’s explore the specific techniques that Foer learned while studying the memory athletes.

The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace is a device that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, to help encode their memories for easy retrieval. This was a time before smart devices; if you wanted information at your fingertips you had to put that information in your head. You’d do it through a process the modern memory athletes call elaborative encoding.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

The memory palace technique is about changing your memories into images placed in a familiar mental location. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your Palace looking at your memories to recall them.

They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.

The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our head. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context. Creating a multi-sensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick.

‘Now, it’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily.’ The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.

Try to animate your image so that you watch it move. Try to think of what it might smell like or feel like and make it as vivid as possible. This is you processing your image. Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why this works.


Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front porch, try to remember as many details as possible.

Let’s imagine that your spouse has asked you to pick up a few steaks from the grocery store for dinner. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.

Got it?

Okay, now lets try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch, not like a cow would, like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubble gum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about what that bubble gum would smell like or the strange smell of a mixture of bubble gum and cow. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubble gum off of the cow’s face?

Four hours from now when you leave work to head home you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front porch. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks, that you see all the time? Or the gum chewing cow we created?

A professional memory athlete will put objects in multiple places within their palaces and have more than one palace in their repertoire. Some will even design their own fictional palaces in great detail, designed specifically as a place to hang memories.

The Memory Palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember.

What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.

PAO: Person – Action – Object

In this system every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object.

The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.

As you can see this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about Frank Sinatra kicking a cape before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your ‘stock images’ as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.

You may look at PAO and think that it’s a very clever way to memorize numbers, a party trick, but not necessarily useful for most of us from day to day. Maybe true, but Foer shares a great insight into the residual effects of training your memory.

I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.

This reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our life.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory… Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.

We are a culmination of our experiences, how we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavour.

Foer’s personal account in Moonwalking with Einstein is a great starting point for your own mental journey. While you’re waiting for that to arrive, start reading our four part series on our memory’s advantages and weakness, starting here

What Kindle Readers Highlight

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg

To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

The most highlighted passage in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is:

Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

And from Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, we learn:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

(I’ve done this in the past too. Thanks Kevin for reminding me.)

Joshua Foer — How We Perceive The World

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember (and the words we use to describe things). … No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. …

Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember.

Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have became estranged. … Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.

Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

(h/t Lapidarium)

Best Psychology Books Of The Year – 2011

Christian Jarrett created a list of the best psychology books in 2011 for the BPS Research Digest:

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer.

The Sunday Times describes Foer’s story of how he became American Memory Champion as “the most entertaining science book of the year”.

The Indy says Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined will generate more discussion than any other science book this year, adding: “His explanations for the apparent paradox of how brutality and even genocide in the modern world coexist with a trend towards diminished violence are entirely convincing.” Also listed by the New York Times and Marginal Revolution.

Not strictly psychology, but the Times has chosen Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (see my notes) as among the year’s best science books. His “engaging” book “looks at how science and statistics can be used to predict commercial successes and industrial disasters and to inform public policy.”

For the Guardian, both Jeanette Winterson and Hanif Kureishi chose Darian Leader’s What is Madness? as among their favourite books of the year. Kureishi calls the book “magisterial” and describes how Leader “explains that the ‘irrational’ delusions and hallucinations of the mad are their attempts at sense.” Winterson says it’s a “thought-provoking book about how we diagnose and differentiate our many kinds of insanities.”

Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel by S. J. Watson is chosen by Waterstones as among their favourite paperbacks of 2011: “Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love – all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine’s life”.

The New York Times highlights Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: “a lucid and profound vision of flawed human reason in a book full of intellectual surprises and self-help value.”

Mind’s book of the year was won by Bobby Baker for Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me. “A collection of 158 drawings Baker created between 1997 and 2008, the diary provides us with an astonishing insight into her struggle to overcome mental and physical ill-health.”

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson, is chosen by Amazon.com’s editors as among the best non-fiction titles this year. “In this madcap journey, a bestselling journalist investigates psychopaths and the industry of doctors, scientists, and everyone else who studies them.”

Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher was shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (read the first chapter).

Other suggestions:

Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir by Robert Jay Lifton:
“Lifton has probed into some of the darkest episodes of human history, bearing his unique form of psychological witness to the sources and consequences of collective violence and trauma, as well as to our astonishing capacity for resilience.”

Altruism in Humans by C. Daniel Batson:
“Altruism in Humans takes a hard-science look at the possibility that we humans have the capacity to care for others for their sakes rather than simply for our own.”

An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine by Sigmund Freud, William Halsted:
“the astonishing account of the years-long cocaine use of Sigmund Freud, young, ambitious neurologist, and William Halsted, the equally young, pathfinding surgeon. Markel writes of the physical and emotional damage caused by the then-heralded wonder drug, and how each man ultimately changed the world in spite of it—or because of it. One became the father of psychoanalysis; the other, of modern surgery.”

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy Wilson:
“Redirect demonstrates the remarkable power small changes can have on the ways we see ourselves and the world around us, and how we can use this in our everyday lives.”

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James Pennebaker:
“our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints. ”

What Should We Do with Our Brain? (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) by Catherine Malabou:
“Not only does plasticity allow our brains to adapt to existing circumstances, it opens a margin of freedom to intervene, to change those very circumstances.”

Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds by Louise Barrett:
“Barrett begins with an overview of human cognitive adaptations and how these color our views of other species, brains, and minds. Considering when it is worth having a big brain–or indeed having a brain at all–she investigates exactly what brains are good at. Showing that the brain’s evolutionary function guides action in the world, she looks at how physical structure contributes to cognitive processes, and she demonstrates how these processes employ materials and resources in specific environments.”

What separates those who accomplish outstanding feats from those who don’t?

According to author and researcher Joshua Foer, it’s the dedication and willpower to doggedly push beyond the “OK Plateau.” When most of us learn a new skill, we work to get just “good enough” and then we go on autopilot.

Foer identified four principles that he saw the experts using to remain alert and to keep learning:

1. Experts tend to operate outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing.

2. Experts will try to walk in the shoes of someone who’s more competent than them.

3. Experts crave and thrive on immediate and constant feedback.

4. Experts treat what they do like a science. They collect data, they analyze data, they create theories, and they test them.

Those who excel continuously push themselves.

Surgeon and author Atul Gawande framed it this way in a recent New Yorker article:

Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice” – sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches – showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

How Do Excellent Performers Differ from the Average?
Five books to improve your memory
Sleep is More Important than Food
US Memory Champ Joshua Foer: What Differentiates Amateurs and Top Achievers


US Memory Champ Joshua Foer: What Differentiates Amateurs and Top Achievers

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, writes in the New York Times that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.

…top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough.To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail. That’s what I needed to do if I was going to improve my memory.

Here is Foer explaining his book:

Do you want to become an expert? Start here:
How Do Excellent Performers Differ from the Average?
Exceptional Memories, Made Not Born
Sleep is more important than food.
What is Deliberate Practice