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Memory Champs? They're Just Like The Rest Of Us

Feb 24, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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In the 1960s, writer George Plimpton pitched to major league all-stars, tried out as an NFL quarterback, sparred with the great boxer Archie Moore — and wrote all about it. Ever since, writers have been taking up a whole range of athletic pursuits for the experience and for the material.

Journalist Joshua Foer took a stab at mental athleticism, and not only did he compete at the USA Memory Championship, he set a U.S. memory record.

"I certainly didn't expect the story would end up where it did," Foer tells NPR's Robert Siegel. In his new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer investigates the nature of memory and his own unexpected journey down memory lane.

"I should, I suppose, begin by explaining that there is a rather bizarre contest that's held every spring called the United States Memory Championship," Foer says, "in which people get together and try to see who can remember the most random numbers, the most lines of poetry, the most shuffled decks of playing cards."

Foer first attended the contest as a science journalist, expecting to find something akin to the Super Bowl of savants, he says. But he was surprised to discover that most competitors did not even have photographic memories; rather, they had simply trained their brains — which they claimed were "average" — to think in more memorable ways. What was more, they insisted that anyone could do it — even Foer.

So Foer went into training under the guidance of Ed Cooke, a man with one of the best trained memories in the world. Foer spent a better part of a year cultivating his memory and trying to understand how it works, and why it sometimes fails.

His training involved learning an array of mnemonic devices — the derivation of the book's peculiar title and cover art. By associating goofy or vivid imagery with something you're trying to remember, it becomes easier to summon it to memory.

"It's a kind of code," Foer says. "The idea is that an image that is so unlike any other image that you've ever thought of is one that's more likely to stick in your mind."

For Foer, picturing Einstein moonwalking a la Michael Jackson did the trick. If imagining Einstein walking on the moon seems funnier to you, that can work, too, he says.

Other memorization techniques are far less silly and much more technical. Take, for example, the memory palace, a mnemonic device created in ancient Greece that transfers memorization to the spatial field of your brain. In the Middle Ages, tricks like these enabled scholars to memorize entire books, Foer explains.

"They all more or less come down to the notion that as bad as we are at remembering a poem or a phone number, we're really good at remembering certain kinds of visual and spatial information," Foer says. "So the idea behind these memory techniques is ... to transform the kind of information we're not very good at remembering into the kinds of visual spatial memory that our minds are actually built for."

To use the memory palace technique, you simply construct an imagined building of memory to peruse. You begin by visualizing a place that you are very familiar with, like your own house. As you visualize this familiar place, you mentally park the information in spots throughout the house that you can vividly recall, like the mailbox or the sink.

"The idea is when you walk back through that space, if you've done it correctly, you'll see the images that you left behind when you were initially remembering that information," says Foer.

After a year of training his mind with devices like these, Foer returned to the competition as a contender. It ended up feeling a bit like the SATs, he says.

"It's a lot of people sitting around at desks scribbling away answers furiously and then handing them in at the front of the room. It's not quite as sexy as a spelling bee, but it's definitely got its drama," Foer says.

For Foer, that drama included being crowned the new national memory champion and setting the U.S. record in card memorization. He was able to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds, and then recall it within five minutes.

Though he has since lost the title, Foer set the record in speed cards — at least in the U.S.

"The best guys in the world can do this in under 30 seconds, which sounds almost extraterrestrial and is really something to behold," says Foer.

Instead of defending his title, Foer has taken a break from mnemonic tricks and is content just to watch.

"I'm a fat schlub at this point," he jokes. "I basically hung up my cleats after winning that contest. It was sort of an experiment in participatory journalism, and I got my answer."

But that doesn't mean he's no longer absent-minded. "The sad truth is, I still forget where I parked my car all the time," he says. "I still forget why it was that I opened the refrigerator door. I still forget to put down the toilet seat."

While you would think that those visual experiences would be easy to imprint, especially for a U.S. memory champion, Foer says it needs to be a conscious decision.

"The thing about these techniques is they only work if you remember to use them. That's sort of the funny thing," he says. "You've got to remember to remember."

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