“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.
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 you 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.