This article in NY Times is fascinating. Written by Joshua Foer, titled “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer”, It is about how an average person can build supposedly “extraordinary” memory. Calling it extraordinary is validated by the brain-crunching exercises he does such as how many binary numbers he can memorize in a span of few minutes and later recall every one of them, precisely.
The article (and the book titled ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ by the same author) is more about the biographical journey of how Joshua Foer gets to build mnemonic skills to remember virtually anything and in that process earned the obscure title – United States Memory Champion. The secret is surprisingly simple and practical – use our in-built capacity for spatial memory, use a tad bit of wild imagination, which is also something we are all born with. You may question if everyone is born with ability to imagine wild stuff and be creative but I believe every single one of us is. Whether we exercise it or not is questionable. (Side bar: Creativity vs. Imagination – same or different?)
I tried to experiment myself with this idea and come to believe it actually works and can be useful too! Though the scale and scope of what I tried is fairly small, it is very beneficial for my day to day life. Here is how it goes. My wife and I are having our morning coffee, talking about some mundane things. In the middle of the conversation, she asks “When you come back down after your shower, can you bring the laundry basket down?”. I say yes and we continue talking about many other things. Fifteen minutes later I depart to perform my usual weekday morning rituals. Three hours later, I am in the middle of a serious discussion at work, I get a text message, “You never got the laundry basket down!!!”. I grind my teeth silently cringing, “Damn! I forgot again!”.
Could the mnemonic principles that brought Joshua Foer to limelight come to my rescue? principles he used to win the national memory championship? and a million dollar book contract to go with it?
I had to try.
The first and perhaps the most important thing to do is to pause as soon as my wife asked that question. If I just nod and we just keep talking then I don’t get to “register” this fact into my “spatial memory”. No mnemonic magic would ever save me. So what I do is take a few seconds pause, right at that moment when I say yes to my wife’s request. I construct a vivid imaginary visual clue. Here is what I say to myself in my mind -“As soon as I open the bathroom door, my father jumps over my head, wearing a spiderman suite. He was yelling that he doesn’t have any clothes to wear and could only find Rishi’s Halloween costume! I bend over my back to thank him for not jumping naked and ask him where all his clothes went. He zooms his arm out like a spiderman, and shoots a spider web pointing at the laundry basket…It’s overflowing and smells vomit…”
I know! How silly and yucky right? While I am glad I didn’t tell my wife what I was thinking, it really is the point. The imagination & association must be bizarre and far outrageous from anything ordinary and usual.
It really only takes about 20 seconds to build and hear that story in my own mind. As soon as I register this story, my wife and I move on with our chit chat. Twenty minutes later, I walk into the bedroom and as soon as I get the first sight of the bathroom door, I recall the crazy story for just a second, but I don’t really replay the story at all. I just immediately realize that I need to take the laundry basket down. I move it out to obvious place in the room when it will be in my line of sight to take it down after I return from show. That’s it. Bingo! I remembered something I would normally forget. Neat.
An important factor is to associate the angry-dad-in-spiderman-costume scene to a trigger event or object that I will encounter in the future moment when I need to recall the thing I memorize. In this case, the trigger is opening the bathroom door. Of course, there is a chance that right at the moment of walking into the bedroom, I could have been seriously pre-occupied with some other thoughts – such as when I should get my next hair cut or how I sucked with my backhand in last night’s match or how long since I have had a beer or some such important thing. Nevertheless, the mnemonic exercise simply increased the chances of me recalling that funky story and thus helped remember what I needed to do. So it’s worth that 20 second investment to exercise my imagination and creativity!
What I tried is rudimentary in comparison to memory games they play in World Memory Championships. I honestly don’t understand how this basic technique can help remember the exact sequence of a decks of cards within a minute.
If you read the article, you will notice they refer to “memory palace” as the familiar spatial object (your house or street or favorite museum or any familiar physical structure) around which they build the crazy imaginary stories embedded with whatever they want to remember – playing cards or stranger’s names or random binary numbers etc. Do they use the same structure every time? If so, doesn’t it confuse the imaginary stories, mixing up the things you want to remember? How to “clean” the loaded memory of stupid stories? (They say they can!). How do they associate a “Queen of Clubs” to a particular incident and location in the made-up story? I would have created an association with a donkey queen and a soccer club within the story. They seem to simply recall the card as they pass through certain object or event. I just don’t get it. I really have to read more on this fascinating subject.
Meanwhile, why don’t you give it a try? It doesn’t hurt to try and fail since we will be just where we are – as forgetful as we always been.
PS: True to his curious spirit that drove him to the memory championship, Joshua Foer is a co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, an online compendium of “The World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica.”