Incredible book exploring the lost art of memorization, immensely readable for a strange subject. Foer weaves in tales from both ends of the spectrum, people who can remember vast quantities of data, and people who cannot remember anything from one moment to the next. The book begins with the feats of the “father of memory,” Simonides, who in 5th century BC Greece identifies bodies in rubble based on remembering where they sat at the banquet table. Then we are dropped in media res, where the author is a finalist in the U.S. Memory Championship, despite having only heard of it a year earlier when he covered the competition for an article for Slate, with the angle of SuperBowl for savants. As a journalist, he meets Ed Cooke, the eleventh best memorizer in the world, who tells Foer that anyone can do what they are doing, with an average memory, and urges him to compete, agreeing to be his coach.
He learns memory palace visualization techniques, because our brains recall images much more quickly than numbers or words. The lewder and more shocking the image, the greater the recall. You have to visually place the image spatially, so think of your childhood home or current workplace, and place the images in disparate parts of the house/office. To recall the items, take a mental stroll through that landscape. Evidence that we never truly forget things is evident in experiments, the items just are lost to our recall. (Example: the amnesiac who didn’t remember that he was asked to draw a shape in a mirror but who consistently got better at it).
Our brains got this way via evolution- our ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or US Presidents but rather needed to know where to find food and resources and the route home, which plants were poisonous. By visualization, we maintained those memories. Reading was also different– people read intensively instead of extensively. Song as a strong element for helping remember (jingles stick in your head).
Classical memory training is first described in the 80 B.C. Latin textbook Rhetorica ad Herennium, the section on memory only a few pages wedged in a larger discussion of rhetoric:
The natural memory is that memory which is embedded in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is that memory which is strengthened by training and discipline. Artificial memory has two basic components: images and places. Create a space in the mind’s eye that you know well and can easily visualize, then populate the imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember.
Michel de Montaigne might have had the original idea for loudlatinlaughing:
To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of his memory, he adopted the habit of writing in the back of every book a short critical judgement, so as to have at least some general idea of what the tome was about and what he thought of it.
Socrates explains how Theuth, Egyptian god and inventor of writing, came to the king of Egypt and offered to teach writing to his subjects. The king was reluctant to accept:
It will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. It is no true wisdom you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men.
Other good bits:
According to Ericssson, what we call expertise is really just “vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.” In other words, a great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise, it is the essence of expertise.
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 pyschological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
“In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. Learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus. The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, a building, a dance, a novel.” – Buzan
Reco’d by mjs, who has not yet finished it.