During the last few months I’ve had a short obsession with memory. I can’t remember exactly what started me on this obsession (irony) but it lead me to reading “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer. Joshua Foer is a journalist who, by chance, covered a story on competitive memorization. It follows his journey to becoming the 2006 U.S.A Memory Champion a year later.
I highly recommend this book. It does not discuss in great detail the memory techniques used but I found it to be very informative, engaging, and easy to read.
It ignited my curiosity in the subject and convinced me to read a slightly more technical work called “Your Memory: How it works and How to Improve it” by Kenneth L. Higbee Ph.D. This book delves more deeply into how memory works (what is known, what isn’t, the tried and tested methods, history, etc.). It is definitely still meant for a layman but focuses more on the topic of techniques.
The way I think of memory has changed after reading these books. I used to think (in retrospect I did not think particularly hard) of memory as just a blob. My senses pick up information and my mind should just realize what’s going on and store absolutely everything. And when I try to remember something (and fail) it’s my mind that’s failing me.
In reality, I should have thought of my mind as a bunch Wikipedia articles. I’ve got a bunch of contributors (my vision, audio, etc.) who can write articles very quickly. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to make links between articles particularly well. Sure every once in a while they’ll put something in but most of the time it requires active attention. The biggest problem is that people don’t have an efficient search function. What they do have is the ability to jump quickly between already linked articles.
Growing up, everyone forms a list of topics that are very well linked together. These are the things that are ingrained and form the cornerstone of your memory. These are things that are meaningful either because you were actually interested or because it’s been forced to be meaningful through schooling or experience. The best way to remember something new is to find a way of making sure that new information can be linked to as many of those old articles as possible (making something meaningful). This is a possible explanation as to why people tend to specialize in something. They have an interest, and it is easier to expand on that interest than it is to start something new since it takes active effort to make these new connections.
There are many ways to make something meaningful. Just spending a lot of time will add meaning to something. Repeating something might convince your mind that it’s meaningful. Combining multiples senses can help.
There are however some clever little tricks that can be used to improve your memory. Spatial memory (visual memory for places) is particularly efficient. If you try to visualize a place you walked through, you could probably do it pretty easily. This probably has some evolutionary background relating to not getting lost. The method of loci (or memory palace) centers on the fact that you’ve memorize a place and can imagine yourself walking through it. Continuing my analogy, this is a wikipedia page that you know exists and can call up at will. Now if you want to memorize something like a list you simply need to come up with a way of conjuring those items along the path you’re walking (creating links in your wikipedia page). The fact that you’ve got a path provides a first link which makes things easier to remember. Instead of thinking directly about an item, you’re thinking of the path and can hopefully remember that item you’ve conjured on that path.
In summation, it all comes down to how meaningful you can make the information you are trying to remember and create as many links/hooks as possible. Sure you can trick your mind into giving meaning to something that wouldn’t normally have much meaning to you but it takes more effort. By practicing memory skills you could reduce the effort involved. But just like everything, there’s always going to be some effort and people tend to be lazy.
I don’t think my memory has improved from reading either of these books – I haven’t been willing to put the effort involved in using the techniques described. I may not remember the titles of these books in a years time but I’ll definitely remember large chunks of the content and at least apply the basic principles when it comes to simply learning new information.