TED Radio Hour
8:01 am
Fri November 29, 2013

Can Anyone Learn To Be A Master Memorizer?

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 4:39 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Memory Games.

About Joshua Foer's TEDTalk

Some people can memorize thousands of numbers, the names of dozens of strangers or the precise order of cards in a shuffled deck. Science writer and U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer shows how anyone can become a memory virtuoso, including him.

About Joshua Foer

In 2005, science writer Joshua Foer went to cover the U.S. Memory Championship. A year later he was back — as a contestant. A year of mental training with Europe's top memorizer turned into a book, Moonwalking with Einstein, which is both a chronicle of his immersion in the memory culture and an informative introduction to the science of memory.

Much more surprisingly, that year of training also turned into a first-place victory at the national competition in New York and the chance to represent the U.S. at the World Memory Championship. Foer's writing has appeared in National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times and other publications. He is also the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, an online guide to the world's wonders and curiosities, and the design competition Sukkah City.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, memory games - what we remember and why we forget almost everything else. If at this point in the show you're thinking, you know, some people are just luckier, you know, they have better memories than other people - well, that may not actually be true.

JOSHUA FOER: I'm Joshua Foer. I'm the author of "Moonwalking with Einstein."

RAZ: Which in keeping with our theme today is a book about memory. And more specifically, a book about a journey Joshua Foer took to the national memory competition and something he learned along the way which is memory is a skill, a trainable skill, which Joshua Foer mastered. So if I went to a party and I met you, how would I remember your name?

FOER: I mean, I happen to be really pretty easy because my last name is Foer. It's the number four, so I always tell people to imagine taking out a steak knife and etching the number four into my forehead, and picture the blood spurting out and me screaming and how guilty you would feel. That is a gruesome, creepy image and it makes my name memorable.

RAZ: See, 'cause I'm picturing you as a giant sort of human puppet in the shape of a four, walking through the party like a one-legged puppet. You know, that one leg is that four - the stump of the four.

FOER: If that's what appeals...

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: ...to your imagination, then go with it; run with it.

RAZ: Here's how Joshua Foer starts his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: I'd like to invite you to close your eyes. Imagine yourself standing outside the front door of your home. Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLES)

FOER: They are pedaling really hard. They're sweaty, they're bouncing around, and they crash straight into the front door of your home.

(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLES CRASHING)

FOER: Bicycles fly everywhere. Wheels roll past you. Step over the threshold of your door and in your living room in full imaginative broadband picture...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HIT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) Oh, baby, baby...

FOER: ...Britney Spears, scantily clad, dancing on your coffee table, and she's singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HIT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME")

SPEARS: (Singing) Hit me baby, one more time. Oh, baby, baby...

FOER: And then follow me into your kitchen. In your kitchen, the light is shining down on Cookie Monster.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKIE MONSTER EATING COOKIES)

FOER: Cookie Monster is waving at you...

COOKIE MONSTER: Yeah, and see...

FOER: ...from his perch on top of a tan horse.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

COOKIE MONSTER: Boy, that make me happy, eating cookies, yeah.

FOER: 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.

COOKIE MONSTER: Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Big cookie.

RAZ: Okay, so you might be wondering what's going on here.

FOER: What you're doing is you're training yourself to create wild, wacky, outlandish, and therefore memorable images in your mind's eye. That's the whole art of remembering things better in everyday life. If you can figure out how to translate information that is not memorable into information that is more appealing to your imagination and to your memory, that gives you a huge advantage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: Over the last few millennia, we've invented a series of technologies that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity. 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 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 is going to be like the Super Bowl of savants. This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.

(LAUGHTER)

FOER: They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers. They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes. And 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 Cooke. And I said to him, Ed, when did you realize that you were a savant? And Ed was like, I'm not a savant. 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. I was like, whoa, how come I never heard of this before? I ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn't work, and what its potential might be.

RAZ: So what did you do to, sort of, improve yours?

FOER: Well, first of all, I'm wary of saying that I improved my memory. What I did was I improved my memory in certain, frankly rather limited, narrow contexts, the contexts in which I trained it. And in the same way that somebody who spends a lot of time watching baseball games and studying baseball is going to have a great memory for baseball lore and baseball statistics, if you spend a lot of time, for example, learning how to remember lists of random numbers, you can get really good at learning lists of random numbers. And the practice was, like - I was just - tried to be pretty rigorous about this, about spending a few minutes every morning...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: ...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. It was fun because this is actually not about training your memory. What you're doing is that you're trying to get better and better and better at creating, at dreaming up these utterly ludicrous, raunchy, hilarious, and hopefully unforgettable images in your mind's eye. One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years, to ancient Greece. Came to be known as the Memory Palace. 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 DJ; 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 mangles the bodies beyond all recognition. 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 survival 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 tan horse, you would be able to see that.

COOKIE MONSTER: ...cookie. Me happy just to think everything cookies.

RAZ: So Cicero and some of these great orators would actually use the techniques that you're describing. They would actually picture, like, not Cookie Monster, but sort of the ancient version of Cookie Monster?

FOER: Yes, the ancient version of Cookie Monster.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: And one of my favorite - so there are all of these memory treatises written, not just in antiquity but throughout the Middle Ages. And one of my favorites is written by this guy called Thomas of Brabardine who ended up becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. And he talks about how he would memorize these benedictions. They invariably involved, you know, like, cows with flaming teats and all sorts of totally impious images that he was using for the sake of remembering this pious content.

RAZ: So can you show me how you would do it?

FOER: I can still remember - I mean, we could - you know, you could read off 40 random numbers right now and I would be able to remember them.

RAZ: You could remember 40 random numbers?

FOER: Oh, totally.

RAZ: Really?

FOER: No, that's a skill that, like, once you learn it, you've got it for the rest of your life.

RAZ: Can I try?

FOER: Oh man. I have a general policy never to do this. But now I'm kind of intrigued to see if I still have the skills. Let me get my head in the right place.

RAZ: Okay, all right.

FOER: Okay, all right. Let's go.

RAZ: 43, 27.

FOER: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, man. I'm out of practice, here.

RAZ: Sorry.

FOER: 43. Okay.

RAZ: 27.

FOER: Okay.

RAZ: All right, so a series of random, two-digit numbers and then Joshua Foer, he starts to repeat them back.

FOER: Okay, so the first one, I have an image of a ram bouncing into my parents' front door, which is 43.

RAZ: And to remember those numbers, Joshua goes into his own memory palace, actually his childhood home.

FOER: A nut cracking on the bed in my brother's room - 21. A band playing these really ugly tubas - 19. And then my mom - 33. Oh, I missed one.

RAZ: Yeah, you missed 11.

FOER: Wait a minute. Hold on a second. Where was 11?

RAZ: It was after 12.

FOER: Right, I walked right past it.

RAZ: Wow, I wonder what that was.

FOER: Um... It was pornographic.

RAZ: Oh, I see, okay, fine, right.

FOER: Let's just leave it at that.

RAZ: So when you were sort of on this kind of journey to just improve your memory, you became, like, obsessed. This wasn't just a little thing that you did 15 to 20 minutes a day. Like, you got a little crazy, right?

FOER: Yeah, I mean, that's just - that's sort of how I operate. But then I also found that I'm a deeply competitive person and once I realized how quickly I was getting good at these skills and comparing the scores that I was getting when I was practicing at home to the scores that previous U.S. memory champions had received in competitions, I started getting this idea in the back of my mind, like, you know, I should really enter this contest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: I ended up coming back to that same contest that I'd covered a year earlier, sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism. 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...

RAZ: When you entered the competition, at some point, you were, like, doing really well and then you got to the last event.

FOER: Yeah.

RAZ: Which sounds like a nightmare.

FOER: Yeah, so the last event, they give you five minutes to memorize the order of two shuffled packs of playing cards in perfect order. I mean, I was sweating.

RAZ: Wow.

FOER: This is like, that's really hard.

RAZ: How did you memorize...

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)

RAZ: ...just a random deck of cards?

FOER: The technique that I used is known as person-action-object. It involves - person-action-object - dividing the pack - person-action-object - into triplets of cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)

FOER: Person-action-object. And - person-action-object - converting those three cards - person-action-object - into images of - person-action-object - famous celebrities performing - person-action-object - verbs on objects. Person-action-object.

RAZ: Can you give me an example?

FOER: Yeah. I mean, the best example is the title of my book "Moonwalking with Einstein." Albert Einstein is the three of diamonds, moonwalking - the verb - is the king of hearts, and myself is the four of spades. So that's me, moonwalking with Einstein.

RAZ: What's the queen of hearts?

FOER: The queen of hearts. Oh, that's actually Janet Jackson. The king of hearts is Michael Jackson, the queen of hearts is Janet Jackson because the kings and queens were pairs.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: So the king of diamonds was Bill Clinton, the queen of diamonds was Hillary Clinton.

RAZ: The seven of clubs was Manute Bol. The eight of diamonds, his sister-in-law. The jack of spades, an old friend from high school and all of them, Manute, Bill and Hillary, Janet and Michael, all of them were with Joshua Foer, at least in spirit, during that final event in the national memory contest, which by the way...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: I won the contest.

(LAUGHTER)

FOER: Which really wasn't supposed to happen.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: So, I mean, after you won, were people in the audience and, like, the other competitors, were they just amazed because you came to this as a journalist to cover it, and then you won?

FOER: Yeah, I suspect some of them were kind of angry at me. I don't think I realized that I was going to win until basically the minute before I won. I mean, my notion was that I was going to be writing some sort of a longer piece, hopefully a book, about this weird world of memory competitions. And my first reaction at that moment was, oh, no, this is a different story than the one I thought I was going to be telling.

RAZ: Do you remember, like, everything now, or...?

FOER: No.

RAZ: No.

FOER: No, no, no, no, no, no.

RAZ: No.

FOER: Not only do I not remember anything, I mean, I still forget where I put the car keys.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: Right, 'cause, like, there's actually not a great trick for that. There's no technique then - like, I'm still stuck with the same basic memory that I had before I started all of this.

RAZ: Do you think that if you got really good at these techniques you could - it would sharpen your memory sort of, you know, if you witnessed, like, a crime scene or something?

FOER: No way.

RAZ: It wouldn't.

FOER: Different skill. I don't think I would be any better than anybody else remembering exactly what happened.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: What I would be able to do is I'd be able to tell you the license plate of the car that drove off.

RAZ: So I mean, you do a lot of events 'cause you've written books and people ask you to speak and you meet all these people. Like they come up to you and they say, oh, Joshua, it's so wonderful to meet you, my name is - and can you remember everyone's name?

FOER: No, I mean, here's the thing, it only works if you're doing it. You have to turn this on.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: I mean, there's no question, it takes effort. But the problem is when you're a memory champion, if you don't remember people's names, you're like a gigantic schmuck.

RAZ: Yeah, people are like - people must be like, you won the national competition.

FOER: What the hell? Why don't you remember my name?

RAZ: Yeah.

FOER: And that's pretty fair, but, you know, that's a fair criticism of anybody who doesn't remember your name. The truth is when you don't remember somebody's name, you are telling them that, like, I didn't care enough to make the effort to remember your name. You just weren't making that effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FOER: And I think if there's one thing that I want to leave you with, it's the notion that our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose 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. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Journalist Joshua Foer. His book is called "Moonwalking with Einstein." Check out his full talk at TED.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DON'T FORGET TONIGHT TOMORROW")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Don't forget tonight tomorrow.

RAZ: Okay, who was that singing in the living room? Britney Spears. And she was singing...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

RAZ: Singing "Hit Me Baby"...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: She was giving a TED Talk.

RAZ: No, she wasn't giving a TED Talk. And then, oh, Cookie Monster. Then he sees Cookie Monster on the horse.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: Eating oatmeal raisin cookies.

RAZ: Eating oatmeal raisin cookie.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: Nom, nom, nom.

RAZ: I am never going to forget that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DON'T FORGET TONIGHT TOMORROW")

SINATRA: (Singing) ...you'll leave me with a broken heart.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.npr.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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