Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To think in more memorable ways

posted by Melissa
So far, the Kipling poem is winning on my post "I need your help! Quick!"  I have until tomorrow to see what poem will win in the end, and which one I will begin memorizing, 5pm tomorrow.  Check out the post and cast your opinion, I have really been enjoying everyone's input and thoughts on the choices.

Not ancient Greece, but the Bahamas.  
In regards to memorizing, there was a recent article in the New York Times on becoming a world-class memory athlete.   Joshua Foer is a journalist, and in 2005 he was covering what he called at the time "the Super Bowl of savants."  The more correct name of the competition is the USA Memory Championship.  Upon meeting one of the competitors, he asked them if they were gifted in the memory department; a photographic memory perhaps?  The contestant replied that he was of average memory, just like everyone else.  In fact, it seemed that every contestant Foer talked to had the same thing to say; anyone could do this, with enough practice and training.

I have a hard time believing this.  These people can memorize two randomly shuffled decks of cards in just under a minute.  Two whole decks of cards!  Shuffled together!  (I wish they had been with me during poker month)  Other feats that are mentioned in the article are reciting a list of 252 random numbers or memorizing an unpublished poem several pages long.  Some records that I find astonishing are 4,140 binary digits in 30 minutes! and 28 decks of cards in one hour!  Foer also thought this seemed implausible, but instead of shrugging his shoulders and walking away with a "Huh, that's cool" kind of attitude, he took it on as a personal challenge.

He spent the next year training with Ed Cooke, one of the competitors he got to interview.  Initially, what  Foer learned from Cooke was that memorizing "was simply a matter of learning to 'think in more memorable ways,' using a set of mnemonic techniques almost all of which were invented in ancient Greece. These techniques existed not to memorize useless information like decks of playing cards but to etch into the brain foundational texts and ideas."

Now my ear is open.  I am about to challenge myself to etch some texts into this ole brain of mine.  It turns out that it's true, nearly all of the techniques used by these M.A.'s (Mental Athletes) have been taken from ancient Greece.  It turns out that a poet (poetry is everywhere), Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C., came across this approach after watching a collapse of a banquet hall.  He was the sole survivor and when asked to retell the events, he realized that he could remember each and every person that was there, and where they were sitting.  Even though he had made no initial attempt to intentionally memorize this long list of victims.

He discovered that he could put any list of information within the visual field of that banquet hall, and recall them easily.  From this came the idea of "memory palaces", also known as "Method of Loci."  A number of texts came forth expounding on this technique.  The article mentions the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Wikipedia also offers Cicero's De Oratore, and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria as tomes celebrating this memorizational style.  Wikipedia defines it as a method that "uses spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorial content."

Indeed, in 2003, researchers proved through the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), that mental athletes compared to the control group had no anatomical differences, nor did they score differently on cognitive tests.  What the fMRI did show was that they were using a different part of their brain, regions known to be involved in spatial memory.  Aha!  The ancient Greeks were onto something.  I think it is amazing how modern science can prove something "true" so many years later.

Foer then takes an aside and discusses the numerous ways in which previous generations depended heavily on memory.  He shares how Robert Darton, the author of the essay, “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” describes it as "a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate."  We went from reading the few expensive and rare books that we could get our hands on over and over again, to reading the many accessible books, and only once.  For me, that seems a lucky feat at times, to even finish a book once.  Look at people's books shelves in America, I'd wager that most are filled with books that one hopes to read.

So, with these modern literary advances perhaps came a loss of how to use our memory.  A loss of taking the poems we loved to "heart" and sharing them aloud with our family and friends.  No wonder this month feels somewhat daunting.

The Greek mnenomic technique is what Foer trained in.  Foer states, "What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, 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. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity."  He would associate every card in a dual deck he was memorizing with some lewd, over-the-top image of a celebrity doing something bizarre.  Apparently, this is something our brain "likes" to memorize.  Something our brains find easy to memorize.  How funny.  And I have to give him some props for sharing the hysterical images his creative mind came up with.

Even after reading the article several times, I find I don't completely understand the idea of a "memory palace."  Is it literally a house in your mind that you place your image associations inside?  It seems that way, from what I can gather.  But then I guess perhaps I don't "get" it because I just don't believe that it would work for me.  Perhaps checking out his book, Moonwalking with Einstein would be helpful.  Let me know if you pick it up and give it a go, and I'll do the same.

For Foer, after a year of training and hitting his plateau, and training more and more...he won the USA Memory Championship.  He even blew the previous record for memorizing two decks of cards, taking it form 1 minute 55 seconds to his 1 minute 40 seconds!  Simply unbelievable!  Maybe we should add memory training into next year's list and see how far we get.  Amy?  What do you think?



sophanne said...

I read that article- it intrigued me. I looked at his book and the reviews and instead opted to get Christiane Stenger's book. "a sheep falls out of a tree."

This past week I spent a few days at a friends house and wanted to see if I could memorize the list of things I didn't want to forget. After picking 10 visual images in my house (easily memorized by walking from one to the next) and making those pictures (I had the medal of honor picture plastered with Mac and cheese so I wouldn't forget a dish I wanted to take, I easily remembered everything and I'm certain I'll have the list in my head for next weeks vacation.

It was small scale but still pretty amazing

Melissa said...

Sweet! That is awesome. Could you imagine performing some of those memorizational feats that Foer spoke about? You are on your way!

sophanne said...

Christiane gives a little "pre-test"- I did the best on remembering names (no surprise- those skills come quick with a class of 20 kindergarteners at the beginning of the year)- missing only one first name out of the 30 possible answers (15 people)

I did the worst on dates with historical events because really, who gives a rat's ass?

The 10 items took so much concentrated attention- and laying awake at night became a little obsessive- I fear who I would become if I tried the whole deck of cards thing or other extreme things they do.

Melissa said...

Bring the book to Jersey, I wanna try the little test thing. Sounds fun!
Good for you!