Biography & Autobiography
Citing memory-related inconveniences suffered by average individuals, the author chronicles his own struggles with chronic forgetfulness and his year in memory training, as well as sharing historical lore and memory techniques.
I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time after hearing about it from (I think…) @jimkwik in a podcast interview. The premise is essentially that your memory skills are not “fixed” and developing a stellar memory is a muscle that can be trained. I did find some neat tricks for remembering important information in here.
Using a few handy techniques, anyone can learn to remember more. Here are some of the methods for cultivating better memory.
The Phonological Loop
The phonological loop is essentially the practice of repeating back to yourself the important information that you need to remember. Some fairly straightforward studies demonstrated participants increasing their memory performance by a factor of 10 by simply repeating the information back to themselves over and over.
I’ve often found myself using this technique for things such as phone numbers and passwords. I’ll just repeat it to myself over and over again until I’ve got it down. It certainly works, but is a bit “brute force” and clunky.
Become an Expert
Another technique for improving memory is to become an expert in the area you want to have a better memory in. The example of chess players is used; expert chess players see the board and pieces in a different way than a novice and can remember moves and game stats and those sorts of things better than the average player.
For me, I consider myself an expert in anything having to do with a computer. Naturally, it’s much easier for me to remember how to do a complex computing task than a novice. So this is fairly intuitive, and unfortunately, not much of a shortcut. This tactic is probably extremely effective, but it’ll take a long time to get there. I’m looking for a bit more rapid increase in memory skills…
Chunking is the practice of combining bits of information into bigger pieces that are easier to remember. You’ll be familiar with this strategy because you remember your home phone number, right? The string ‘5558675309’ is much harder to remember than the chunked 555-867-5309. Makes perfect sense, but this one seems fairly narrow in its applicability…
When you relate a new piece of information to pre-existing memories and knowledge, this is known as elaborative encoding. One example of this technique in practice is the peg word system.
A common peg word system is one used is a rhyming one associated with numbers. So you want to remember the ingredients and order of a chili recipe: beef, tomatoes, beans, onions, and chili powder. Using a rhyming association with numbers, think of 1-SUN, 2-SHOE, 3-TREE, 4-DOOR, and 5-HIVE.
To remember the recipe using the peg word system visualize the following:
1-Sun: for beef picture a cow wearing sunglasses and sunbathing 2-Shoe: for tomatoes picture stomping a big tomato with your shoe 3-Tree: for beans picture a bunch of beans growing all over a tree 4-Door: for onion picture a giant onion knocking on your door 5-Hive: for chili powder picture a hive of bees who are cold and chilly
By associating the items you need to remember with an order and visualizing them you can better recall information that needs to remain in order.
The Method of Loci
Also known as creating a memory palace, this technique involves conjuring up an image in your mind of a place you know well. You mentally walk through this location, and “store” memories as places in this physical space. By combining elaborate encoding with a physical space you can visualize, you create a very powerful mnemonic. The ‘memory palace’ is the star technique of Moonwalking with Einstein.
The Changing Importance of Memory
It was interesting to consider how our need to memorize has changed over the course of history and as civilization has evolved. We used to pass down cultural knowledge via oral traditions and everything was memorized. Ancient scriptures were a step forward, but they were essentially cheat sheets; you had to already have the full story in your head and the scripture just prompted the reader and helped jog their memory.
But everything changed when the printing press was invented in 1440. As the cost and length of time to produce a book decreased, reading grew in popularity and memorization became less important because you could just look at the book.
Fast forward to today, and memorization can seem almost pointless when you can use your smart refrigerator to ask Google about whatever piece of information you’re missing. I wondered to myself as I was reading just how long it will be until our memory skills as a race atrophy to the point of being useless…
From The Horses Mouth
Here’s a 4-minute video of author Joshua Foer discussing the inspiration for the book and recapitulating the highlights. Enjoy!