Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – Joshua Foer
Improving your long lost trait: Remembering
Memory Has Become Less And Less Important Throughout History
We didn’t always have the attention span of a goldfish, but today it sure seems that way.
Subscribe to Miniwise Newsletter (Free!)
Miniwise newsletter brings you one great bite-sized idea every day, curated from world's best non-fiction books, articles, podcasts..and more. An entire new world in just 5 minutes!
Imagine that our memory had been so bad once we finally became old enough to pass on knowledge from generation to generation.
We wouldn’t be here today had the elders not remembered a few important things.
Before the invention of scripture, memory artists were today’s equivalent of quarterbacks. King Cyrus of Persia was known for knowing all the names of his soldiers, and Socrates mocked writing for making people forgetful.
The History Of Declining Memory
Anything that was written before 200 BC had no punctuation; all texts were basically just word strings. If you didn’t already know what you were reading, reading was useless.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and it was all downhill from there.
Once we could store information externally, physically store it anywhere in our house, and access it at any time, the need to remember things significantly declined.
This tendency has continued ever since and taken a major turn for the worse with the invention of smartphones and the globally available internet.
Memory Isn’t Fixed
However, just because our memory stinks now doesn’t mean we can’t improve it. We know that the average number of list items we can store in our short-term memory is seven, though that can be increased with practice.
Through repetition, practice, and becoming an expert in certain fields, you can increase your capacity to remember things.
How To Recall Better: Chunking
Chunking simply means dividing one string of information into several.
Can you remember 1117200112241999 just by looking at it once? Most people can’t, but we can remember two dates in a row: 11/17/2001 and 12/24/1999.
By creating two chunks of differently formatted information, memorizing a string of seemingly random numbers becomes easy.
If you now put these dates into context, it’ll be even easier: for example, 11/17/2001 was your friend’s 11th birthday, and the second date was Christmas 1999.
How To Recall Better: The Memory Palace Technique
The memory palace is a technique where you walk along a route you know really well and put memories in certain locations along the way.
For example, you could go through your childhood home and place the items from your shopping list on the kitchen table. Then, when you’re in the grocery store, all you have to do is mentally enter the kitchen and see what’s there.
Once you see tomatoes, onions, and potatoes on the table, you know what to shop for. You can even have multiple routes for different kinds of memories.
Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
The Three Stages Of Learning A Skill
The cognitive stage: The skill is performed consciously and manually. This is when the brain is developing new strategies to do it more effectively. At this stage, there is improvement in fits and starts because the brain is monitoring performance and removing errors.
The associative stage: When the brain stops strategizing and just becomes more efficient.
The autonomous stage: Here, the behaviors become automatic and the improvement stops. This is called the OK plateau, and it used to be considered the upper limit of a person’s ability. Now we know that it’s possible to improve far beyond it.
The Memory Palace In Detail
Before the invention of writing or electronics, people used to keep palaces devoted to memory. Not physical palaces, but mental ones!
1. Think of a place you know well… a childhood home, perhaps, or where you live now.
2. Imagine walking up to that place, and putting the first object to remember right on the front porch.
3. Then, step inside and turn to your left. What do you see? Put the second object there, and so on.
The items would be remembered when you mentally visited the place after a while.
The Major System
The major system allows you to convert numbers into sounds and thus words, thereby making them memorable. Each number corresponds to a certain kind of consonant, and vowels and some other sounds are unassigned. 1 is T or D. 2 is N.
The Major System is based not around letters but sounds, so “enough” and “knife” would both code for 28. “Knife” would probably be easier to remember visually, though. No matter what letter you choose, each number corresponds to essentially the same position for your mouth.
Memory Is Not Fixed
Memory, and indeed most intellectual skill, is not fixed. Anyone, by using the right techniques and practicing, can expand their mnemonic capacity beyond what many people would even think possible—an excellent party trick or simply a useful tool to remember phone and credit card numbers.
Practice even more, and you might even be able to compete against others at national or world championships.