Memory techniques

Alex Mullen, World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Alex Mullen is the first American to win the World Memory Championships and the highest point-scorer in the 24-year history of the competition. Holder of seven memory world records, he is the top-ranked memory athlete in the world. He is also the 2016 USA memory champion and holds a Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029). He is also a third-year medical student at the University Of Mississippi School Of Medicine. A truly dominant force in the world of memory, I wanted to know how Alex used his memory systems to enhance his real-life learning.

Daniel Kilov: Your ascendancy to world memory champion has been nothing short of meteoric. Can you give me a sense of what your training looked like before you won the WMC? Are there any drills, methods of training techniques that you think might have given you an edge over the competition?

 

Alex Mullen: Well, I certainly don’t think I have any secret formulas! My training methods and systems aren’t too different from any other competitor. Most of my practice is just based on whatever motivation I’m feeling in the moment, which tends to skew toward chasing personal bests in the sprint disciplines, like speed cards. Those types of events are generally more fun for me, so I’m usually focusing on going fast, rather than training for endurance or accuracy or something like that.

 

Daniel: I understand that your entry into the world of memory was motivated by a desire to learn more effectively. You’ve obviously found a great deal of value in memory techniques since then but I’m curious as to whether or not the techniques met your original expectations as a tool for practical learning.

Alex: At first, they didn’t, funnily enough. I first tried to use them for a biomedical engineering lab course I took in college. While the techniques worked to some extent, I found them pretty inefficient, slow to use. And they didn’t seem to give me the giant leg-up on everyone else I’d been hoping for. After getting frustrated and setting them aside for a while, I finally picked them back up again before starting medical school. Luckily, as a memory competitor, I had some extra motivation to do so. The techniques themselves are quite powerful, but I’ve learned it’s not so obvious how to apply them to learning complicated subjects in an efficient way. It’s just about finding the right set of tweaks to eliminate the roadblocks keeping the techniques from being useful. Elucidating those approaches and giving real-world examples of how the techniques can work well is what my wife and I have been working on with our http://www.mullenmemory.com project over the last few years.

 

Daniel: As I’m sure you are aware, there are innumerable books on memory techniques out there. Unfortunately, almost all of them teach the same, very basic techniques with fairly artificial examples. Can you give me a real example of how you use these techniques in your medical studies?

 

Alex: This was a big frustration for me when I was first learning to apply the techniques. A book or video might explain, say, how to memorize a 10-item list using a memory palace, and from there you’re basically on your own. But there must be more tips for structuring palaces, reviewing, and making good images, right? That’s essentially what we’re trying to explore with Mullen Memory, to give some answers to those questions.

Personally, I’m using a memory palace just about any time I’m trying to learn something for the long term, especially if the topic is information-heavy. For example, take the class IA antiarrhythmic drugs. I might start in the garage of a house along one of my usual driving routes. There I place the drug names: a golf cart—for quinidine, hard to explain that one—with a pro golfer’s club—for procainamide—in the back. On the far side are two stacked pyramids—for disopyramide. In the driveway, I imagine a kid falling off a skateboard to the right, which mimics the change in shape of the action potential. Then I imagine the basketball goal’s hoop is spinning, to signal that these drugs are often used for re-entrant or ectopic arrhythmias.

At every stage of this process, I’m doing my best to think about how the drugs actually work and justify their features logically. The images I just gave you are mainly just things I found unintuitive and difficult to remember.

 

Daniel: What does your current training schedule look like? What are your current competition and training goals?

 

Alex: Since this summer’s Extreme Memory Tournament and US Open, my training schedule has been pretty low-key. I generally try to keep it to less than 30 minutes per day. With the Memoriad coming up, I’m starting to pick things up again and do some longer events. Right now I’m focusing on getting ready for Memoriad. I’ve never been and would love to do well there. Beyond that I don’t have any definite plans. Day to day I’m usually working on breaking whichever personal best just happens to be most exciting in the moment.

 

Daniel: What habits, techniques or routines do you use to maintain your motivation and stay disciplined? Do you know where and when you developed these techniques? Was it only after you became a memory athlete or have you always been driven?

 

Alex: Much of my motivation to train memory competitively stems from the challenge of it. It’s fun to see your times drop and to push yourself to do things you previously thought weren’t possible. It’s almost like an addictive video game. You just want to keep driving up your high score. I also like that it serves as a kind of cross-training for using the techniques for learning.

But I think I have always been a pretty disciplined person, for some things more so than others. Like I said, I try to maintain a relatively low daily load to minimize burnout and maintain consistency. I try to spread different events throughout the week so there’s always some variety.

 

Daniel: Do you have any particularly memorable stories from your time as a memory athlete?

 

Alex: My first competition, the 2014 USA Memory Championship, really sticks in my mind. I remember just being thrilled during the recall of the first event, names, that I was actually remembering anything. I recalled the very first name and felt a sigh of relief that the techniques were still working and I hadn’t had some kind of mental meltdown. And meeting all the well-known competitors of the time, people I had read about all the past year, was a pretty surreal feeling. The 2015 World Championship was also really memorable. I got to meet so many people from all over the world, which was very cool. I even got to carry the US flag during the opening ceremony, although mainly because most of my teammates had ducked out to go see the pandas, which are seriously cute, in fairness.

 

Daniel: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the art of memory? Or perhaps wish the competitive community talked about more?

 

Alex: I’d be happy if more people knew what the art of memory was, period. Despite a fair amount of publicity, it’s still unknown to the average person. In the terms of the competitive community, I’d like to see more of a push in the direction of shorter, more audience-friendly events. The Extreme Memory Tournament has started a great precedent for that, but it’s still just one competition each year, so it’d be great to have more. Online challenges and events seem to be just starting to pick up steam, which I like. I’d like to see more interesting team events too. Right now, the only team thing is that the top three individual scores from each country are added together to get a team score. I think some actual team events—we even saw one at the XMT this year—could be really fun. Anything to make the sport more exciting!

 

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An educational revolution

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

imagesIn the first part of this three part series, I introduced the Art of Memory, a two and a half thousand year old method for memory training, and discussed its greatest living exponents, the competitors of the World Memory Championships. In addition, I highlighted the three key principles that animate all of the techniques used by memory athletes. In this post, I’ll argue that the right place for these techniques is not in history books, or in competitions, but in our classrooms.

For almost two thousand years, the Art of Memory was a cornerstone of western education. Taught during the renaissance alongside rhetoric, grammar and logic, these mnemonic techniques and training methods were employed and advocated for by many of the greatest minds of the western intellectual tradition including Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Francis Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. It was only during the Protestant reformation that the Art of Memory was driven underground.

In modern times, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Research has shown, for example, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players.

In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high-level chess players. What he found was that it was remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that give birth to elite chess performance. Chess is often thought to be a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy. But in reality, the most important difference between players is how many chess facts they have stored away in memory. Similar discoveries have been found across a range of fields.

To see just how powerful these techniques can be in an educational context, let’s run through a quick example.

As I explained in my first post, the key to these memory techniques is to create colourful mental images and organise them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later. For instance, perhaps we want to remember the word ‘por’, which in Spanish means ‘through’. To do so, we might imagine someone pouring something through a window. ‘Por’ sounds like the English word ‘pour’ and so we link an image containing the phonetics of the Spanish word to its meaning. To make it more memorable, we might imagine a great ocean pouring out of a tiny cup, and perhaps landing on some unfortunate passer-by.

Suppose we wanted to remember the Spanish word for monkey, which is ‘mono’. To do this we might imagine a monkey wearing a monocle.

Finally, to remember that the Spanish word for milk is ‘leche’, imagine a family of big, black leeches swimming around in a pitcher of milk.

As you go about your day, test yourself on these examples. To recall them, simply bring the relevant images to mind. What does the Spanish word ‘por’ mean? What is the Spanish word for milk? What does ‘mono’ mean? If you got these all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only a single viewing of each word you have taken your first steps towards learning another language. As well as being faster, mnemonics are much more enjoyable method of learning vocabulary.

Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them – imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years as one competitor from the 14th World Memory Championships has done – and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.

Daniel Kilov, a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2013, is a Memory Athlete. He was the silver medallist at the 2011 and 2012 Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for memorising abstract images. Daniel is also currently completing a PhD in philosophy at ANU and working as a memory coach and consultant.

The Secrets of Memory Athletes

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

In just over a week from now, over a hundred men and women from more than 30 different countries will converge on Hainan, China, for three days of intense competition. As much as any athlete, these competitors embody the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger. This, however, is a competition of a very different sort. These athletes will be competing in the World Memory Championships.

Competitors at the World Memory Championships can perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is a mere 21.9 seconds. The world record for binary digits is 1080 binary digits memorised, without a single error, in five minutes. These achievements are, of course, astonishing but they are not the most remarkable thing about these mental athletes. Rather, what is most remarkable about the participants in the World Memory Championship is that there is actually nothing particularly special about them at all! By this, I mean that memory athletes are not savants and were not born with super powers. Rather, they all know and use a small set of ancient mnemonic techniques, known collectively as the Art of Memory. With a little bit of practice, anyone can learn to think and remember like a memory athlete.

In this post, the first of a three part series, I’m going to uncover the secrets of these mnemonic wizards. In part two, I’ll demonstrate how their methods and techniques could revolutionise our classrooms and in part three, I’ll explain how these ancient techniques could catalyse innovation and success in a corporate and business setting.

The memory championships were established in 1991 by Tony Buzan (also known as the creator of ‘mind-maps’ and a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2011) as a way of promoting the techniques of the Art of Memory. The techniques themselves, however, predate the sport of competitive memorising by more than 2000 years. The techniques used by modern memory athletes originated over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece. These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.

So how then, do these techniques work? Although memory athletes employ a wide range of different strategies in competition, they all involve the same three steps. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is to create a visual, mental image of whatever you are trying to remember; the third step is to organise it in a way that makes it easy to recall later.

Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right. As Sherlock Holmes, who in the stories was gifted with a phenomenal memory, put it, most of the time, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organisation, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of a friend’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to learn the layout by rote. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Thus, the key to memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form.  An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember. The more energetic and vivid the mental images are, the more effectively they will stick.

All of us could stand to improve our memories; whether we are looking to pick up a new language in months instead of years (like Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships who learnt 2000 foreign words in 18 hours); to cram for an exam (I would memorise weeks’ worth of notes in the hours preceding my undergraduate exams); or just to remember a shopping list. The techniques of the memory athletes offer us a way to do exactly that.

Daniel Kilov, a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2013, is a Memory Athlete. He was the silver medallist at the 2011 and 2012 Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for memorising abstract images. Daniel is also currently completing a PhD in philosophy at ANU and working as a memory coach and consultant.

The Scientist, The Mnemonist and The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

This article was originally printed in Issue 413 (September/October 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Our relationship with memory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is utterly familiar – indeed, we would be lost without it. On the other hand, many details of its function remain rather elusive. Truly understanding the nature of human memory requires a multidisciplinary approach. In my capacity as a memory athlete I’ve had a chance to meet memory experts from a range of different backgrounds. Here I interview Ed Cooke, an expert in the Art of Memory, Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology from Washington University and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, whose remarkable story is recorded in her book “The Woman Who Changed Her brain”.

Ed Cooke is a Grand Master of Memory; he is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, more than a thousand random digits in an hour and at least ten decks of cards in an hour. Additionally, he is the founder of Memrise, a free online educational platform that uses memory techniques to optimise learning. Ed has also spent time in Australia studying the philosophy of cricket at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger’s research has centred on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of memory. He is also one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific study of memory athletes and recently published a book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which details practical applications of his research.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen weak areas of cognitive function that underlie a number of learning disabilities. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s work, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities. This is documented in her internationally bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.

 

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Kilov: How did you develop your interest in memory? Why is memory important?

Roediger: My interest in memory began early, when I was 5 years old. My mother died, which was devastating, but I discovered I could mentally keep our experiences of being together alive by thinking about them again and again. So over the years, I naturally wondered how memory worked. Somewhat later in life, as a student, I discovered that many psychologists study memory using objective techniques. Cognitive psychology — the study of how the mind works — eventually became my field of study.

Cooke: I’ve always been fascinated by the mind- I love experiencing thoughts and colours- but my practical interest in memory grew from a chance spell in hospital. I got ill and wound up by misfortune as an 18 yr old in a ward of wittering octogenarians for three months. I’d always been quite fascinated with psychology and philosophy, and really out of boredom and a desire to impress the nurses I decided to train my memory. So I got some books, and set about learning all about these ancient arts. It quickly became a favourite pasttime.

I’m not so sure what it means for memory to be important. Or rather- as a general phenomenon it’s obviously at the heart of all human mental life. I guess the reason why its worthwhile training memory is to become better aware of it, and because it leads to learning more and enjoying the mind better.

 

Arrowsmith-Young: For me my interest was very personal beginning at an early age.  Having severe learning problems growing up that did not allow me to understand concepts, I relied on my memory to compensate for my lack of comprehension. I believe I took what was already a strong memory capacity – both auditory and visual – and supercharged it through a series of practices I developed starting in grade 1 to work around my other learning challenges. I built myself a visual photographic memory for text and a verbatim auditory memory for what I heard which allowed me to get through school.

As an adult, I have devoted my life to working with individuals from age 5 to those in their 80’s to improve cognitive functioning – various aspects of memory being some of those functions.  I see how devastating memory problems can be in people’s lives – academically, vocationally and socially.

Two quotes come to mind that illustrate the importance of memory to our lives:

“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves. If on no other ground, most Americans are joined in our shared desire to improve the curious, elusive faculty we call ‘memory’.”

— Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, Barnard College,

in her review in The New York Times of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Dr. Eric Kandel, the author of In Search of Memory, underlines the critical role of remembering. “Memory,” he says “is the glue that binds our mental life together. It allows you to have continuity in your life.”

So I think memory is critical to our well-being.

 

Kilov: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about memory?

 

Roediger: One myth is that memory is passive: Experiences happen to us, they lay down memory traces, and then in remembering we just read off the contents of these traces in a more or less passive way. This view is not totally wrong — experiences do leave their mark in the brain/mind — but there is so much more to it than this simple account.

 

Remembering is an active process — we selectively encode some information (and not other information) from rich experiences. After encoding, our memories can be changed by later information that can serve to distort (or to affirm) our memories. The act of retrieval is also an active, constructive process. We usually remember events more or less like they happened — we could not exist if we did not usually get things right — but memories are malleable, too, and we can be highly confident in a memory only to have it turn out to be false. That is one of the topics I study, illusions of memory.

 

Cooke: Besides the existence of photographic memory, I think the most damaging misconception about memory is that it is inert, like a store-house. To state the same idea positively, the most interestingly fruitful way for most people to reconceive of their memory is as a power of action. Memory doesn’t just sit waiting to be accessed by some other part of the brain. It’s present in perception, in language and in thought. Memories change the shape of your experience from the inside.

 

To ask why memory is important to the mind is like asking why walls are important to a house, or streets important to a city- it’s basically their shape.

 

Arrowsmith-Young: As I wrote in my book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks.  Anthony J. Greene, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he operates a learning and memory lab, contributed to a special report on memory in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Memory is dispersed,” he wrote, “forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions.” “

 

 

Kilov: What advice would you offer to those interested in memory improvement?

 

Roediger: Many techniques exist for memory improvement. Some are formal mnemonic techniques that have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Others have been uncovered in more recent research. For example, one great strategy to learn a set of material (say from chapters in a textbook) is to test oneself on the material, to show that it can be actively brought to mind when needed. This is called retrieval practice, and a person should also provide feedback when he or she fails to retrieve correctly. Self-testing via retrieval practice is a much more effective study technique than repeatedly reading text material (e.g., highlighting and rereading), which is what students generally do.

I recently published a book with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning that discusses many methods for improving learning and memory. We wrote it not just for educators, but for people in many walks of life — trainers in industry and sports, those in the military and in for others in many occupations. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to improve their learning no matter what their age. Teachers have found it especially rewarding, because some of the advice from the research literature is counterintuitive to the way people usually think about learning.

Cooke: Most of memory skill is learning to perceive and trust and exploit the peculiarities of your mind. A lot of the time, we sort of deny the associations we make, aim to bring them under control and normalise them. But really getting the most from your memory means learning to trust and delight in the random associations and meanderings of your attention. If you’re mental pathways are senseless or appalling from an outside perspective then that has no bearing on their utility internally. Great memory is always a very intimate and open internal dialogue, so to speak. One where you’re not just unembarrassed by the peculiarities of your mind, but you’ve no interest whatsoever in what it seems like from the outside.

Arrowsmith-Young: I would encourage people to work on improving memory through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce that cognitive decline that impacts memory as we age. We do not have to associate getting older with a poor memory. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so memory exercises can keep our brain healthy.

 

Kilov: Is there anything else people really ought to know about memory?

Roediger: Yes! The topic is huge and fascinating. Consider topics like: Flashbulb memories — memories that are often emotional and seem (but are not) permanently etched into memory; or deja vu — when we seem to be re-experiencing or reliving a prior event, but we know we are not; or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we can almost (but not quite) retrieve a bit of information from memory. Why? What stops us? Relatedly, there is a phenomenon called the feeling-of-knowing experience. You are asked a question (What is the capital of Croatia?). If you fail to answer it, I ask you to give a rating on a scale about the likelihood that you would get the answer right on a multiple choice test. People are generally quite good at doing this, at predicting how well they can answer the question. So even though they do not know the answer, their feeling-of-knowing judgments are generally highly correlated with their performance on the later multiple choice test. The puzzle is: How does one not know an answer, but then can still show how much he/she knows about the topic and be accurate?

 

Psychologists study these phenomena above and many more. You could read books (or at least chapters and papers) on all these topics. The field is rich and fascinating.

 

Cooke: Well, regarding memory training, people should know that here’s no magic bullet that will suddenly change your mind, but rather that there is a collection of reliable ways of attuning and focusing your attention and guiding your mind that together can make learning things robustly achievable – and pretty fun. ■

Review of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

This review was originally printed in Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 1, www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/issues/volume6issue1/conwaykilov/ 

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In his captivating book Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer details his journey from journalist to memory master during his research for an article on the US memory championships. Moonwalking with Einstein explores the world of memory, setting out on a journey that takes the reader from the bizarre world of memory sports through the relevant cognitive science and all the way back to Ancient Greece to the birth of mnemonic techniques. This is a popular, rather than scholarly, book, and the historical and scientific details are gleaned from Foer’s journalistic investigations, rather than original research.

There was a time, Foer reflects, when it was more practical to remember information than it was to record it. In ancient times, recording information was a lengthy and expensive process. Consequently, students in the ancient world were taught, ‘not just what to remember, but how to remember it’ (p. 96) using mnemonic techniques referred to collectively as the Art of Memory. The techniques of the Art of Memory all revolve around the composition of elaborate and colourful mental images. In one instance, for example, Foer memorises a shopping list by conjuring mental images of Claudia Schiffer swimming in cottage cheese and anthropomorphic bottles of wine getting into a punch-up.

During the Middle Ages, books were not considered substitutes for memorisation but rather as aides-memoire. Books of this period were written without punctuation or spacing, in an unending stream known as scripto continua (p. 139). Without punctuation or paragraphs, page numbers or an index, referring to a work written in scripto continua required an intimate knowledge of the text. As Foer puts it, these works existed ‘not to hold its contents externally, but rather to help its reader navigate its contents internally’ (p. 141). By the time of the Enlightenment, improvements in technologies designed to externalise memory resulted in a decline in the popularity and practice of mnemonic techniques.

Even during the Enlightenment the idea of using memory techniques to preserve information was beginning to appear outdated; how much more so now in the age of smartphones and smarter search engines? Foer explores the idea that we might be ‘moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all-encompassing external memories’ (p. 155) by introducing us to an engineer named Gordon Bell, who has taken to recording everything he does via a miniature camera he designed to act as a surrogate memory. Bell can search through his recorded ‘memories’ using customised software to ‘recall’ particular details which are all downloaded and stored on his computer.

Bell’s internal and external memories do not yet interface seamlessly; his external memory does not allow for the same speed and ease of recall as his biological memory, yet his project raises crucial questions about the role and nature of our memories. It is these questions that motivate Moonwalking with Einstein.

Given that it is so easy to relegate so many of our memory tasks to external devices, what is the point of remembering anything? For a person who has invested hundreds of hours in developing his memory (by the end of his journey, Foer is capable of memorising a deck of shuffled playing cards in one minute and forty seconds) Foer’s answer is a surprising one.

Foer’s answer as to why we ought to train our biological memories rather than rely on external systems is not, as one might expect, inspired by any of the prodigious memorisers he introduces us to in the course of his book. Instead, His most compelling argument is one he ‘received unwittingly from EP’, an amnesiac who is entirely unable to form new memories and ‘whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people’ (p. 268). Without his memory, Foer writes, ‘EP has fallen out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate’ (p. 74).

For Foer, to be human is to remember. Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find humour in the world and to share in a common culture are all essentially human acts that depend on memory (p. 269).

Foer deals a blow to the fantasy of cultivating a faultless memory (a fantasy which motivated his entry into the world of memory sports) but does so with such sensitivity and enthusiasm for his topic that one comes away feeling inspired rather than disillusioned. His argument that memory is the seat of identity is compelling, but does not, on its own, clearly justify the training of memory. Foer’s experiences, however, provide another argument for practising the ancient techniques of the Art of Memory: memory training is fun. The mental images that Foer and his fellow mnemonists create are playful and the process of remembering is as much an exercise in creativity as it is in fidelity. The final lesson of Moonwalking is that we ought to approach our memories with a sense of playfulness, because that is how they work best.

The Memory Systems of Mark Twain

TwainThis article was originally printed in Issue 411 (May/June 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

In 1883, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, began work on a game designed to teach his children to remember the names of the English monarchs. The game involved using the garden path around his home to spatially represent the relative reigns of the kings and queens. As both a family activity and as a memory aid the game was a great success, and the idea began to take on new configurations in Twain’s mind. He began to reimagine and redesign the game and even stopped working on Huckleberry Finn so that he could devote more time to his new project. In 1885, he patented “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Twain believed that all of human knowledge could be learnt through his game and his notebooks reveal plans to organize national clubs and competitions organised around his game, as well as an accompanying book and periodicals. The game, however, was a failure and Twain (fortunately) returned to writing, stating to a friend that “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game, don’t.”

Twain had a tortured relationship with his memory throughout his life. In “Old Times on the Missisippi”, Twain identified memory as the “one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has brought it to perfection” and regarded a well-developed memory as “the most wonderful thing in the world”. Twain’s own memory, however, was famously bad. Albert Paine, a well-known biographer of Twain’s, wrote that, even as a young man, Twain would lose his way in familiar neighbourhoods, or fail to recognize pictures that had been hanging in his own home for years. Clearly, Mark Twain, the writer-lecturer, was in serious need of an aide de memoire.

In 1887, Twain crossed paths with Professor Loisette a ‘memory doctor’ who made a living peddling a system of memory techniques bearing his name. Inductees into the “Loisette system” were sworn to secrecy, and charged the modern equivalent of five hundred dollars to learn the “natural laws of memory” which the doctor claimed to have discovered. Twain enrolled in a several-week-long course and at first was deeply impressed, even going so far as to publish a testimonial in favour of the Loisette system. He was soon to regret this; only one year later a book was published titled “Loisette” Exposed” which revealed him to have invented not only his academic degree but also his name. ‘Alphonse Loisette’ was born Marcus Dwight Larrowe and had no qualifications to speak of. His entire system, it turned out, had been either plagiarised from other sources or oversold as to its effectiveness.

Eventually, Twain discovered a system that worked for him. As he wrote, “It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away…The lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures – for they remain.” In 1880 he shared his system of mental “hieroglyphics” with his friend William Dean Howells. After Twain’s death, Howells revealed the method which Twain used to memorize his speeches:

“It was his custom to think out his speeches, mentally working them out and then memorizing them by a peculiar system of mnemonics which he had invented. On the dinner-table, a certain succession of knife, spoon, salt-cellar, and butter plate symbolized a train of ideas, and on the billiard-table a ball, a cue and a piece of chalk served the same purpose.”

Essentially, the dinner table and billiard table served as loci to which his mental pictures were affixed. Although Howells believed that Twain had invented the system, Twain was actually drawing from a two thousand year old tradition of memory training known as the “Art of Memory” and employing one of its oldest techniques: The method of loci.

The invention of the Art of Memory is usually attributed to the Ancient Greek poet, Simonides, and although the art was mentioned in writings by Aristotle, the earliest known systematic account of the memory techniques come from the anonymously written Rhetorica Ad Herennium as well as works by Cicero and Quintillian, all of which were penned around four hundred years later. We know that these techniques were almost universally practiced by thinkers of the ancient world precisely because of the shallow way in which writers treat the subject. Just as a modern writer about, say, the various uses of the internet, wouldn’t bother to spend much time explaining what the internet is or, for instance, what Google is, writers of ancient memory treatises simply took knowledge of the Art of Memory for granted.

Although the Art was originally developed to help aspiring students of rhetoric to remember the content of their speeches, the techniques of the Art of memory, and in particular the method of loci, was widely influential and found expression in a surprising number of ways. During the Middle Ages the Art of Memory was incorporated into the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Another persuasive hypothesis put forward by modern historians is that Dante’s Divine Comedy is properly understood as a memory system with its striking images organized along a series of loci.

During the Renaissance period, the influence of the Art of Memory was ubiquitous in art, religion, philosophy and science, and its practitioners included Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Giordano Bruno and probably Shakespeare.

Mark Twain’s memory building game was an externalized version of the internal spatial mnemonic used in the Art of Memory. However, although he almost certainly didn’t know it, he was certainly not the first to do so.

In 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for the construction of what he called a memory theatre.

The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections. In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.

Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death. It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published “The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination. Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being a continuation of a much older tradition of the the method of loci. This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and, like Twain, Camillo believed his personal contributions towards the memory theatre were a giant leap forwards in mnemonic techniques and in learning. Just like Twain, Camillo was wrong. His memory theatre was not the revolution he had hoped for. Indeed, it was never constructed.

Unlike the mysterious and mystical memory theatre of Camillo, however, Twain’s memory techniques were remarkably simple and were designed so that they could even be adopted by children. Consider his advice to children for learning historic dates:

“Dates are difficult things to acquire… But they are very valuable” wrote Twain in his article How to make history dates stick. Dates are hard to remember, he lamented, because “they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance”. To aid memory Twain advised that would-be historians create vivid mental pictures; “Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick”

The ‘trick’ to Twain’s memory system was to create mental simulacra and then organize them in locations, as described above. The distance between these locations encoded the comparative length of their reigns. To remember the reign of William I, for instance, Twain recommended using the image of a whale; “We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history…” Henry II was to be remembered as a hen and Richard the Lion-heart as a lion.

The Art of Memory, Twain believed, also benefited his writing: “The effort of inventing such things will not only help your memory, but will develop originality in art. See what it has done for me.”

Twain’s memory game was a financial failure. His dream of transfiguring education never came to fruition and his writings on memory techniques weren’t published until after his death. Nonetheless, his techniques supported a successful lecturing career, helped him conquer his chronically poor memory, inspired his literature and transformed his children’s attitudes towards their own learning; in their biographies both Susan and Clara Clemens recall fondly the outdoor memory game. Although our own memories may not be as bad as Twain’s, we could probably all nonetheless benefit from some of his memory techniques.

The Secret of Memory

What do Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Bacon and Mark Twain all have in common? Watch my newest talk from TEDxManly to find out. In addition, I share a technique for high speed language learning.

This talk was wonderfully illustrated by Gavin Blake and I have included his artwork below:

TEDxManly talk illustrated