I'd like to invite you to close your eyes.
Imagine yourself standing outside the front door of your home. I'd like you to notice the color of the door, the material that it's made out of. Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.
They are competing in a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straight for your front door. I need you to actually see this. They are pedaling really hard, they're sweaty, they're bouncing around a lot. And they crash straight into the front door of your home. Bicycles fly everywhere, wheels roll past you, spokes end up in awkward places. Step over the threshold of your door into your foyer, your hallway, whatever's on the other side, and appreciate the quality of the light. The light is shining down on Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is waving at you from his perch on top of a tan horse. It's a talking horse. You can practically feel his blue fur tickling your nose. You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie that he's about to shovel into his mouth. Walk past him. Walk past him into your living room. In your living room, in full imaginative broadband, picture Britney Spears. She is scantily clad, she's dancing on your coffee table, and she's singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time." And then, follow me into your kitchen. In your kitchen, the floor has been paved over with a yellow brick road, and out of your oven are coming towards you Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion from "The Wizard of Oz," hand-in-hand, skipping straight towards you.
Okay. Open your eyes.
I want to tell you about a very bizarre contest that is held every spring in New York City. It's called the United States Memory Championship. And I had gone to cover this contest a few years back as a science journalist, expecting, I guess, that this was going to be like the Superbowl of savants. This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.
They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once. They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes. They were competing to see who could memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest. I was like, this is unbelievable. These people must be freaks of nature.
And I started talking to a few of the competitors. This is a guy called Ed Cook, who had come over from England, where he had one of the best-trained memories. And I said to him, "Ed, when did you realize that you were a savant?" And Ed was like, "I'm not a savant. In fact, I have just an average memory. Everybody who competes in this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory. We've all trained ourselves to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece, the same techniques that Cicero had used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books." And I said, "Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?"
And we were standing outside the competition hall, and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant, but somewhat eccentric English guy, says to me, "Josh, you're an American journalist. Do you know Britney Spears?" I'm like, "What? No. Why?" "Because I really want to teach Britney Spears how to memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards on U.S. national television. It will prove to the world that anybody can do this."
I was like, "Well, I'm not Britney Spears, but maybe you could teach me. I mean, you've got to start somewhere, right?" And that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me.
I ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also investigating it, trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn't work, and what its potential might be.
And I met a host of really interesting people. This is a guy called E.P. He's an amnesic who had, very possibly, the worst memory in the world. His memory was so bad, that he didn't even remember he had a memory problem, which is amazing. And he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extent to which our memories make us who we are.
At the other end of the spectrum, I met this guy. This is Kim Peek, he was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man." We spent an afternoon together in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating.
And I went back and I read a whole host of memory treatises, treatises written 2,000-plus years ago in Latin, in antiquity, and then later, in the Middle Ages. And I learned a whole bunch of really interesting stuff. One of the really interesting things that I learned is that once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today. Once upon a time, people invested in their memories, in laboriously furnishing their minds.
Over the last few millenia, we've invented a series of technologies — from the alphabet, to the scroll, to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone — that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity. These technologies have made our modern world possible, but they've also changed us. They've changed us culturally, and I would argue that they've changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems like we've forgotten how.
One of the last places on Earth where you still find people passionate about this idea of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory, is at this totally singular memory contest. It's actually not that singular, there are contests held all over the world. And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.
A few years back a group of researchers at University College London brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab. They wanted to know: Do these guys have brains that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours? The answer was no. Are they smarter than the rest of us? They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests, and the answer was: not really.
There was, however, one really interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects that they were comparing them to. When they put these guys in an fMRI machine, scanned their brains while they were memorizing numbers and people's faces and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were lighting up different parts of the brain than everyone else. Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using, a part of the brain that's involved in spatial memory and navigation. Why? And is there something that the rest of us can learn from this?
The sport of competitive memorizing is driven by a kind of arms race where, every year, somebody comes up with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the field has to play catch-up.
This is my friend Ben Pridmore, three-time world memory champion. On his desk in front of him are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards that he is about to try to memorize in one hour, using a technique that he invented and he alone has mastered. He used a similar technique to memorize the precise order of 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour.
And while there are a whole host of ways of remembering stuff in these competitions, everything, all of the techniques that are being used, ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer to as "elaborative encoding."
And it's well-illustrated by a nifty paradox known as the Baker/baker paradox, which goes like this: If I tell two people to remember the same word, if I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy named Baker." That's his name. And I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy who is a baker." Okay? And I come back to you at some point later on, and I say, "Do you remember that word that I told you a while back? Do you remember what it was?" The person who was told his name is Baker is less likely to remember the same word than the person was told his job is a baker. Same word, different amount of remembering; that's weird. What's going on here?
Well, the name Baker doesn't actually mean anything to you. It is entirely untethered from all of the other memories floating around in your skull. But the common noun "baker" — we know bakers. Bakers wear funny white hats. Bakers have flour on their hands. Bakers smell good when they come home from work. Maybe we even know a baker. And when we first hear that word, we start putting these associational hooks into it, that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date. The entire art of what is going on in these memory contests, and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life, is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers — to take information that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning, and transform it in some way, so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.
One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece. It came to be known as the memory palace. The story behind its creation goes like this:
There was a poet called Simonides, who was attending a banquet. He was actually the hired entertainment, because back then, if you wanted to throw a really slamming party, you didn't hire a D.J., you hired a poet. And he stands up, delivers his poem from memory, walks out the door, and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses. Kills everybody inside. It doesn't just kill everybody, it mangles the bodies beyond all recognition. Nobody can say who was inside, nobody can say where they were sitting. The bodies can't be properly buried. It's one tragedy compounding another. Simonides, standing outside, the sole survivor amid the wreckage, closes his eyes and has this realization, which is that in his mind's eye, he can see where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting. And he takes the relatives by the hand, and guides them each to their loved ones amid the wreckage.
What Simonides figured out at that moment, is something that I think we all kind of intuitively know, which is that, as bad as we are at remembering names and phone numbers, and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories. If I asked you to recount the first 10 words of the story that I just told you about Simonides, chances are you would have a tough time with it. But, I would wager that if I asked you to recall who is sitting on top of a talking tan horse in your foyer right now, you would be able to see that.
The idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined edifice in your mind's eye, and populate it with images of the things that you want to remember — the crazier, weirder, more bizarre, funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it's likely to be. This is advice that goes back 2,000-plus years to the earliest Latin memory treatises.
So how does this work? Let's say that you've been invited to TED center stage to give a speech, and you want to do it from memory, and you want to do it the way that Cicero would have done it, if he had been invited to TEDxRome 2,000 years ago.
What you might do is picture yourself at the front door of your house. And you'd come up with some sort of crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image, to remind you that the first thing you want to talk about is this totally bizarre contest.
And then you'd go inside your house, and you would see an image of Cookie Monster on top of Mister Ed. And that would remind you that you would want to then introduce your friend Ed Cook. And then you'd see an image of Britney Spears to remind you of this funny anecdote you want to tell. And you'd go into your kitchen, and the fourth topic you were going to talk about was this strange journey that you went on for a year, and you'd have some friends to help you remember that.
This is how Roman orators memorized their speeches — not word-for-word, which is just going to screw you up, but topic-for-topic. In fact, the phrase "topic sentence" — that comes from the Greek word "topos," which means "place." That's a vestige of when people used to think about oratory and rhetoric in these sorts of spatial terms. The phrase "in the first place," that's like "in the first place of your memory palace."
I thought this was just fascinating, and I got really into it. And I went to a few more of these memory contests, and I had this notion that I might write something longer about this subculture of competitive memorizers. But there was a problem. The problem was that a memory contest is a pathologically boring event.
Truly, it is like a bunch of people sitting around taking the SATs — I mean, the most dramatic it gets is when somebody starts massaging their temples. And I'm a journalist, I need something to write about. I know that there's incredible stuff happening in these people's minds, but I don't have access to it.
And I realized, if I was going to tell this story, I needed to walk in their shoes a little bit. And so I started trying to spend 15 or 20 minutes every morning, before I sat down with my New York Times, just trying to remember something. Maybe it was a poem, maybe it was names from an old yearbook that I bought at a flea market. And I found that this was shockingly fun. I never would have expected that. It was fun because this is actually not about training your memory. What you're doing, is you're trying to get better and better at creating, at dreaming up, these utterly ludicrous, raunchy, hilarious, and hopefully unforgettable images in your mind's eye. And I got pretty into it.
This is me wearing my standard competitive memorizer's training kit.
It's a pair of earmuffs and a set of safety goggles that have been masked over except for two small pinholes, because distraction is the competitive memorizer's greatest enemy.
I ended up coming back to that same contest that I had covered a year earlier, and I had this notion that I might enter it, sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism. It'd make, I thought, maybe a nice epilogue to all my research. Problem was, the experiment went haywire. I won the contest —
which really wasn't supposed to happen.
Now, it is nice to be able to memorize speeches and phone numbers and shopping lists, but it's actually kind of beside the point. These are just tricks. They work because they're based on some pretty basic principles about how our brains work. And you don't have to be building memory palaces or memorizing packs of playing cards to benefit from a little bit of insight about how your mind works.
We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case. Great memories are learned. At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged. We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience, and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it's colorful, when we're able to transform it in some way that makes sense in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds, when we're able to transform Bakers into bakers.
The memory palace, these memory techniques — they're just shortcuts. In fact, they're not even really shortcuts. They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don't normally walk around exercising. But there actually are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable.
And I think if there's one thing that I want to leave you with, it's what E.P., the amnesic who couldn't even remember he had a memory problem, left me with, which is the notion that our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives, by losing ourselves in our Blackberries, our iPhones, by not paying attention to the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we're not willing to process deeply?
I learned firsthand that there are incredible memory capacities latent in all of us. But if you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.