Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Go make some memories!

You might know that Moonwalking with Einstein  is about “the art and science of remembering everything” if you’ve read the book’s subtitle. In other words, the book is about memory. But two wildly different aspects of memory: memory as a life skill, and the watershed transition from orality to literacy; and memory as a competitive sport and the requisite intensive training in memory techniques.

Author and journalist Joshua Foer emphasizes that the book is not a self-help guide. It documents his engaging journey as he immerses himself in participative journalism and ultimately becomes a US Memory Champion. No easy feat, but not out of reach to an average Joe, he insists. In his own words, the book chronicles the year he spent training his memory “and also trying to understand it – its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential”.

With the invention of writing and the printing press, human cultures hitherto reliant on oral lore to transmit cultures, adapted writing as the dominant medium of communication. The ‘externalization of memory’ no doubt led to a profound shift in our thought and consciousness, but also made the art of memory quite redundant. In Plato’s Phaedrus, which is essentially a complex dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus on what constitutes artful speaking and writing, Socrates argues that since writing has no notion of the receiver’s soul, it can neither raise questions nor offer instructions and can at best serve not as a recipe for memory, but a mere tool for reminding, and hence only implant forgetfulness. (Phaedrus was required reading while at graduate school, and while it may be an insightful analysis of communication and its breakdown, it is hands down the most dense and enigmatic conversation I’ve ever dissected.)

Our memory is only as good as the use it gets. So, with phones that store all our numbers, with post-its and plain notepads that store our to-do lists, with books that we can refer whenever we need to, with online dictionaries that save us the trouble of remembering what words like macaronic or saprostomous mean, it seems like our memory really gets very limited use. Such as, perhaps, where we saw our keys last, or what someone’s name is, or remembering to pay our rent on time. Unless, of course, you are in a business that depends on your ability to remember. Being a cabbie in London, for instance. Foer writes that:

..before they can receive accreditation from London’s Public Carriage Office, cabbies-in-training must spend two to four years memorizing the locations and traffic patterns of all 25,000 streets in the vast ad vastly confusing city, as well as the locations of 1.400 landmarks…Only about three out of ten people who train for the Knowledge obtain certification.

Or even a birder. In Feather Quest, Master birder Pete Dunne describes his own elaborate procedure for bird identification simply by listening to its song or call:

It takes time to tune an ear, and effort, too. It means tracking down every unfamiliar song and welding the visual image of the bird to an ephemeral voice. Unless you are among the gifted few, someone with the auditory recall of Igor Stravinskly, the weld usually does not hold the first time, or the second time either. The bird with the short, bright phrases or the raspy vowels must be tracked down over and over and over. Then over and over again, until those phrases and the image of that bird fuse and become one.

Or maybe you are a chick sexer and have honed your chick sexing skills by looking at thousands of chick bottoms, and can expertly identify the sex of a chicken in a few seconds. Maybe you do something less obscure, more mundane – maybe you drive. When I first learned to drive, I felt the need to memorize the different routines: K-turns, parallel parking, why, even starting the car (put the seat belts on, adjust the mirrors, check the seat, check the brakes), or making a turn (turn the indicator on, slow down, hand-over-hand turn), until I’d had enough hours of practice that it seemed automatic and not overwhelming at all. Anybody who is an expert on anything has an exceptional memory, even if it is just in his field of expertise.

The world of a memory athlete is vastly different from your mother’s (who remembers the date you started crawling). It is strange and fascinating, and yet it seems ridiculous and pointless. What is so exciting about memorizing 27 packs of cards in one hour? Foer writes in detail about his own memory training, and the various memory techniques he learns and masters. Such as, the memory palace. A memory palace or method of loci is a memory technique which hinges on the memorization of the layouts of a place – it could be your home, a museum, or even a route that you are familiar with, and imagining a specific path through this place. Imagine walking through the place of your choice (always along a certain path) and visually associating certain landmarks on that path (door, a couch, a clock) with the items you want to remember. In the book, Foer invites the reader to use their own childhood home (or any such familiar place) to remember a list. It worked. I still picture a giant bottle of garlic pickle near the gate of my apartment building. This technique is ancient indeed. Foer adds the interesting tidbit that the word topic is in fact derived from the Greek word topos for place. Now you know where the phrase in the first place comes from – the memory palace.

Being a memory champion is not likely to have many practical advantages. As Foer attests, he still is as forgetful (or not) in everyday life. Nevertheless, memory is important. Knowledge is sticky when you have prior knowledge – “it takes knowledge to gain knowledge..facts to fasten other facts to…the more you know, the easier it is to know more”.

“Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”

Memory and intelligence, it seems, go hand in hand. So, take notice. Be mindful and attentive. Even our ability to find humor depends on memory. Also, says Foer, change your routines, have new experiences, take vacations. Memories can also have an effect on perceived quality, and perhaps more importantly, quantity of our lives:

“Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives…life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we older.”

So, go to Iceland. Bathe in New Mexico’s hot springs under a star-studded sky. Or go to a croissant making class. Whatever rocks your boat. Go make memories.

But for me, the most poignant take-away is that my son will be probably have no memory of me, until now that is. Foer reports that the average age people report having their earliest memory is around three and a half years, which sounds about right. The most eventful years of my life will be less than a blur to him.


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