February 13, 2012

February 13, 2012

Things I’ve Read: Moonwalking with Einstein

How’s your memory? Are you the type of person who can never remember where you left your keys? Or can you still perfectly picture your favorite birthday cake? Maybe both?

That’s the thing about the human mind. Sometimes it works too well, other times not at all. Worst of all, you can’t seem to pick and choose what sticks.

Or can you?

Joshua Foer decided to find out, and wrote about his experiences in Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer researched and then competed in the US memory championships. Because yes, it is an official competition, and yes, you can learn fast enough to be competitive after just a year of practice, and yes, the Americans do horribly at the world memory championships.

Foer provides some background on the concept of memorization to get us started. See, back in the olden days, the only way to pass information on was to remember it and tell it to someone else. You didn’t have a system of tweeting, or printing, or even writing. You did it Homer-style, through rote memorization. Without today’s external memory systems (books, internet, post-it notes, etc.), you had to internalize important information.

Even with the advent of writing and such, people still thought it was pretty darn important to keep the muscle of the mind in shape. As anyone who can recite the Gettysburg Address or Jabberwocky knows, many schools continue to make kids learn by memorizing. Apparently the pedagogical tide is turning, though, towards a methodology in which we teach kids how to find information instead of the information itself. Why learn the dates of the Civil War when you can look it up on Wikipedia?

(I’m not arguing for or against either system. I’m just making them known.)

After looking at where memory came from, mentioning a few people noted for their memory skills (or lack thereof), and talking a bit about the brain itself, Foer gets down to the nitty-gritty: training for the US memory championships. Several events comprise the championships; contestants have to memorize names and faces, random binary digits, decks of cards, and poems. The key strategy for Foer, and for many of the contestants, involves chunking the information presented to you, associating a mental image with each chunk, and placing that image in a so-called “mental palace,” which is a place you know really really really well.

Let’s try an example. There are easier ways than what follows, but this one’s more intuitive.

Think of a house you know inside and out. Maybe it’s where you grew up, maybe it’s where you live now, maybe it’s the set of your favorite TV show. Whatever. This is your mental palace.

Now, let’s pretend that you had already come up with a set of mental images for each card in a standard deck of cards (52 cards total). Maybe actors for the spades, foods for the hearts, etc.

You’re handed a deck to memorize. You pull the first card: three of spades. Your mental image for that card is Clint Eastwood. Perhaps he’s holding up three fingers while swinging a shovel, as extra reinforcement that he IS the three of spades.

In your mind, approach your mental palace. Imagine Clint Eastwood there, pointing those three fingers and swinging that shovel in the driveway.

Next card: nine of hearts. Grapes

Go back to your mental palace. Walk past Clint Eastwood (three of spades, remember), and up to the front door. As you approach, look on the ground. Place a bunch of nine grapes there. Big, juicy ones. Maybe they’re in the shape of a tic-tac-toe board and sitting in the center of a heart-shaped tin. NINE of HEARTS. Okay?

And so you’ve memorized the first two cards in the deck.

Skilled players develop an image for each possible combination of two (or even three) cards. While that’s a whole lot of images to begin with, by dividing a 52-card deck into two- or three-card combinations, you end up only having to memorize 26 or 18 images. "Moonwalking with Einstein" was actually one of the images Foer used, hence the book's title.

Now, why does this work so well? Because spatial memory is way stickier than verbal memory. It’s why we learn how to drive by actually DRIVING, how to play an instrument by actually PLAYING, and how to throw a baseball by actually THROWING. I think we can all agree that reading about these activities only gives you half the story. You gotta get out there and DO it.

The book finishes with Foer at the US memory championships. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say he applies the techniques he’s learned (including our mental palaces trick) and does pretty well. Yet for all that he learned, he still finds himself forgetting where he parked his car after work, or even that he drove to work at all.

The mind is a terrible thing.

0 Fish in a Sea of Diet Coke: