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by William H. Benson

March 3, 2011

     In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I read an interesting article on mental athletes, or M.A.’s for short. These individuals compete at memory games: for example, they memorize thousands of random digits in less than an hour, or large chunks of epic poetry, or the order of two decks of shuffled cards in less than two minutes. These M.A.’s compete at various levels and the winners of those eventually end up at the U.S. and the World Memory Championships.

     None of them claims to possess a photographic memory: Ed Cooke, an M.A. From England, said, “Photographic memory is a detestable myth. Doesn’t exist. In fact, my memory is quite average. All of us here have average memories.”

     Then, how can they memorize at such a superior level to the average person?

     The answer is that they have learned to “think in more memorable ways,” and the best of these is the construction of a mental memory palace, such as “routes through town, or signs of the zodiac, or mythical creatures, or luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest, or body parts.” Then, that which they want to remember—people’s names, playing cards, lists of numbers—they convert to vivid images that they pigeonhole into specific compartments within their memory palace, in sequence.

     To remember, for example, the sequence of a memorized deck of playing cards, an M.A mentally walks back through the various rooms within his memory palace and visualizes the images within each room. The image brings him back around to the point he sees in his mind a playing card.

     “What distinguishes a great mnemonist is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly.” 

     “The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.”

     Our memories are extremely good at remembering the more exotic images: “the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better.” One M.A explained it this way: “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.” This technique becomes more a function of creativity than of memory.

     Joshua Foer, the author of the article, suggested a theory: “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to remember where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.”

     So taken up by the thought of competing at the national level was Joshua Foer that he trained and won and even set the new U.S record in speed cards, less than two minutes, memorizing the order of the cards in two complete decks. At one point in the training he reached a plateau in which he could not memorize more than one card every ten seconds.

     To overcome this, Joshua purchased a metronome and paced himself 10 to 20% faster. He also purchased ear plugs and industrial-grade earmuffs and wore both when memorizing. “In the heat of a memory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough,” he said. Also, he bought plastic safety goggles, spray-painted them black, poked a peek-hole through each lens, and put them on. Now that is focus! As a result of his equipment upgrade, his times required to memorize a card fell.

     It is important, I think, to keep this exceptional and quite astonishing memory competition in perspective: it is designed only to win the game, and other than that, accomplishes so little. No human problem is being alleviated, no hungry child is being fed, cancer is not being vanquished, and no war is giving way to peace, but then the same is true of all forms of competition.

     The best comment on memory was originated, I think, by the philosopher Nietzsche, who observed that there is a direct connection between memory and pain. In other words, we remember far better that which hurts—both physical and emotional pain—than than which pleases. Now remember that!