Monday, 31 March 2014


Joshua Foer is a journalist and writer (“Moonwalking with Einstein”). He became interested in memory and especially the extraordinary feats of memory some achieve some remembering hundreds of numbers in sequence or the cards in several packs of cards. He was intrigued that the seemingly impossible could be memorised. He wanted to know more so he visited the USA Memory Championship. There’ve been sixteen such championships in New York City. His interest deepened. So much so that in 2006, just out of interest he trained for and entered the championship.

There he discovered people specialists in things like remembering as many decks of playing cards as possible, 5min Historic Dates (fictional events and historic years) and memorizing the order of one shuffled deck of 52 playing cards as fast as possible. World record: 21.90 seconds. There are ten exercises in all.
Jonathan was blown away. He realised he was in the presence of mental gymnasts of an extraordinary order. Yet in 2006 he entered just for interest and…and he won it. Jonathan Foer became US Memory Champion almost by chance. How? Well he explains on TED how you have to make things you want to remember meaningful and tangible. He explains how techniques invented 2,500 years ago still work.

The lyric poet Simonides had a wonderful memory.  During the excavation of the rubble of one Scopas' dining hall that had collapsed in an earthquake, Simonides (who’d luckily left before the disaster) was asked to identify each guest killed. Although their bodies had been crushed beyond recognition he successfully finished the task by remembering who was who from their positions at the table before his departure. He later developed what became known as  the 'memory palace', a system for mnemonics widely used until the Renaissance …when things we needed to remember  were printed so are memories weren’t called on with quite the previous urgency.

Today of course our memory is on our iPad or smartphone. Today children at school are not taught to memorise. Today we’ve forgotten about memory. Yet memory today is still a vital thinking tool.
I’d go further. It’s virtually impossible to be a great success without a reasonable memory. Imagine a lawyer who can’t cross reference relevant cases. Imagine a toymaker who can’t recall similar toys to his latest idea. Imagine a writer who couldn’t remember the references that enrich his assertions.

You cannot busk when you have poor memory.

One of our biggest problems is our mind attic is stacked full of rubbish we don’t need. So, in specific areas we really want to focus on, we need to do a “Spring Clean”. Learn some stuff by heart, put some structure around a subject in which you have a keen interest and see
what happens. Look after one of your precious assets.

(By the way the 17th USA Memory Championship was on March 29, 2014 at Con Edison headquarters, 4 Irving Place, New York City.)

1 comment:

James Arnold-Baker said...

Memory is still alive in the modern world, in unexpected places. Raju Ram, our trek leader in the Himalayas, is an illiterate Gaddi shepherd. His mobile phone is in constant use, as he plans our trek. Is it programmed in English or Hindi? Neither - Raju remembers all the numbers.
When he shops for stores, or hires porters and ponies for the trek, he remembers all the deals and costs. At the end of the trek, he sits down and dictates all the costs to Kim Butterworth, the trek operator.
It may not be hi-tech, but it is jolly efficient.