Joshua Foer on Memory

After reading Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingI think it is too bad that ancient memory techniques are not routinely taught in our schools. 

Wikipedia currently has this to say about Joshua:

Foer sold his first book, Moonwalking with Einstein, to Penguin for publication in March 2011.[2] He received a $1.2 million advance for the book.[1] Film rights were optioned by Columbia Pictures shortly after publication.[3]

In 2006, Foer won the U.S.A. Memory Championship, and set a new USA record in the “speed cards” event by memorizing a deck of 52 cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds.[4]Moonwalking with Einstein describes Foer’s journey as a participatory journalist to becoming a national champion mnemonist, under the tutelage of British Grand Master of MemoryEd Cooke.

Here are a few passages that give you some flavor for the book, though the book is more light-hearted than these three passages fullly reveal. Let me mention that the book Ad Herrenium that Joshua mentions is available both as a nicely bound Loeb Classical Library book on Amazon, and free online here. Joshua:

I have to warn you, Ed said, as he delicately seated himself cross-legged, “you are shortly going to go from having an awed respect for people with a good memory to saying, ‘Oh, it’s all a stupid trick.’” He paused and cocked his head, as if to see if that would in fact be my response. “And you would be wrong. It’s an unfortunate phase you’re just going to have to pass through….

Much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition, but is now maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly adapted for our contemporary information age. The tasks we often rely on our memories for today simply weren’t relevant in the environment in which human beings evolved. Our ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers, or word-for-word instructions from their bosses, or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum, or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party.

What our early human and hominid ancestors did need to remember was where to find food and resources, and the route home, and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. This are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on every day, and it was–at least in part–in order to meet those demands that human memory evolved as it did.

The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t remember all types of information equally well. As exceptional as we are at remembering visual imagery… we’re terrible at remembering other kinds of information, like lists of words or numbers….

Virtually all the nitty-gritty details we have about classical memory training–indeed, nearly all the memory tricks in the mental athlete’s arsenal–were first described in a short, anonymously authored Latin rhetoric textbook called the Rhetorica ad Herrenium, written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C….

The techniques introduced in the Ad Herrenium were widely practiced in the ancient world. In fact, in his own writings on the art of memory, Cicero says that the techniques are so well known that he felt he didn’t need to waste ink describing them in detail (hence our reliance on the Ad Herrenium). Once upon a time, every literate person was versed in the techniques Ed was about to teach me. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it. (pp. 90–95)

"Well done,” Ed said, with slow and deliberate applause. “Now I think you’re going to find that the process of recalling these memories is incredibly intuitive. See, normally memories are stored more or less at random, in semantic networks, or webs of association. But you have now stored a large number of memories in a very controlled context. Because of the way spatial cognition works, all you have to do is to retrace your steps through your memory palace, and hopefully at each point the images you laid down will pop back into your mind as you pass by them. All you’ll have to do is translate those images back into the things you were trying learn in the first place. (p. 104)

… But after having learned how to memorize poetry and numbers, cards and biographies, 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 an only happen if you decide to take notice….

So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: 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 memories. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. 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.  (pp. 268-269)