I‘ve just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein, the book by Joshua Foer (little brother of Jonathan Safran Foer, the guy who persuaded me to go vegan). After researching the techniques used by the world’s memory ‘grand masters’, Joshua ended up preparing for, competing for, and winning the US memory championship.
The techniques he used date back millennia, and were used before the printing press and even before written language. Although there are some new, more powerful techniques used by memory champions, the underlying techniques are unchanged, and entail the use of powerful images, and familiar locations (our brain remembers images and sequential locations much more readily than ‘un-placed’ facts) that are ‘connected’ to what the learner wants to memorize. Without the use of such techniques, not even memory champions can keep more than 5-7 facts in their ‘working memory’ at a time.
You are probably familiar with them since hundreds of ‘self-help’ books have described them:
- The memory palace: Committing to memory a journey through a familiar place (a childhood home, say) and then associating each item in the list you’re trying to memorize with a sequential point in that journey. To do that, you have to conjure up a memorable image (the more prurient the better) that you can connect with each item in the list, and then ‘place’ that image in the next place in the sequence in your journey. Then as you retrace the journey the images will immediately come to mind in the correct order.
- The Major System, Person-Action-Object (PAO), and Chunking: This entails first breaking a long string of data (like a phone number) into several pieces and memorizing each chunk instead of each datum. To memorize numbers, the Major System converts the numbers 0-9 into the following consonants: 0=s, 1=t/d, 2=n, 3=m, 4=r, 5=l, 6=sh/ch, 7=k/g, 8=f/v, 9=p/b. Vowels can be inserted anywhere to make the results intelligible. So the number 3219 can be remembered as man (playing) tuba, or Manitoba. A more sophisticated system, the PAO, converts every two digit sequence from 00-99 into a memorized image of an unique person performing an unique action on an unique object. Then any 6-digit sequence can be memorized as the person (from the first two digits) performing the action (from the second two digits) on the object (from the third two digits) — one image to remember 6 consecutive numbers. Card counters and card memorizers use the same technique except with 52 unique P-A-Os instead of 99, allowing them to memorize any 3 consecutive cards with one image, and a whole deck with 18.
- For memorizing prose and poetry, first read a set of lines to get the gist of it, then create an image that captures the essential ‘memes’ of that set of lines, and place each in a memory palace. Some people assign an image to each line or phrase, others to every word (they use a set of memorized ‘stand-in’ images for the 200-or-so commonest words like pronouns and conjunctions). Some people make their images intellectually stimulating, while others recall the emotion that the words provoked. Many use puns, mnemonics or rhyming words as part of their images. Even the best memory champions struggle with learning text — because of its complexity it’s the hardest thing to memorize.
- All of these techniques take considerable practice to learn, until they become second nature. If you want to get really good at memorizing, you need to push yourself to memorize more, faster, each day, or your improvement will soon level off.
Although Joshua confesses his memory for unstructured information (like where he left his car keys) is no better now than before he learned the techniques and became a memory champion, and that a lot of structured information (like schedules, ‘to do’ lists and contact information) is easier to keep in a written list or other external place than taking the trouble to memorize it, he does make a compelling argument for practicing the art of memorization on the following grounds:
- It’s good mental exercise as you age, and the social advantages of remembering people’s faces and names and one or two really important (to them or you) things about them is enormous.
- It’s a good practice for becoming more attentive, more mindful, more present in the moment every day.
- You only really ‘know’ a great piece of writing when you’ve committed it to memory.
- “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember … Our memories make us who we are.” That includes “our ability to find humour, to make connections, to create new ideas, and to share in a common culture”.
I was sufficiently persuaded to decide to practice. The obvious starting point is some of my own stuff — favourite stories, poetry, some of the things I would like to be remembered for, perhaps the ‘signature posts’ on my right sidebar. To be able to stand up before a group and say something that was well-written verbatim without notes is a very powerful capacity, and I’d like to learn to do that.
So that’s where I’m starting.
But then what? What should I memorize after that? If I get into the practice of spending just 15 minutes a day practicing memorizing, what material should I work on besides my own? What’s worth memorizing?
Here are some of the things I’m considering memorizing, for various reasons — they’re succinct and compelling, they’re entertaining, they capture important and essential truths that are often and easily forgotten, they are things I believe and care about so deeply that by memorizing them I feel I might become more truly myself:
- TS Eliot’s Four Quartets
- The lyrics and chords for 20 selected songs I am learning to perform
- The Dark Mountain Manifesto
- The first chapter of John Gray’s Straw Dogs
Thinking about this also, to my surprise, got me thinking about what I want to write next on this blog. What are the most important things I have learned in the nine years since I started writing this blog, which now extends to some 7,000 pages of material? How can I distil them and say them in some memorable way, that I can ‘perform’ when the opportunity permits, to audiences of one or a hundred, in poetry, in prose or in song?
What about you, dear patient reader of my clumsy, verbose and often circuitous writing? What have you memorized, and what to you is worth memorizing?