Q:WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST HUMAN MEMORY?
There was a guy at my elementary school who had a mailbag instead of a book bag. He may well have been mocked, but I can only remember the mailbag, not the consequences.
Anyone can have a super-memory?
This guy with an average or subpar memory used these techniques to win a memory competition and break a memory world record…
Our memories weren’t built for the modern world, he said. Our ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers; they needed to remember where to find food and resources and the route home. That’s why, the theory goes, we’re largely good at remembering visual imagery and terrible at remembering other kinds of information, such as lists of words or numbers. The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.
To use his technique, all one has to do is convert something unmemorable, such as a string of numbers or deck of cards, into a series of engrossing visual images and mentally arrange them in an imagined space.
Ed told me to use the house I grew up in. “We’re going to array items from a shopping list along a route that will snake around your childhood home,” he explained. “When it comes time to recall the list, all you will need to do is retrace the steps.”The first item on Ed’s list was cottage cheese. “I want you to close your eyes and see an enormous, pool-size tub of cottage cheese. Now I want you to imagine Claudia Schiffer swimming in the tub, dripping with dairy
The Ad Herennium advises readers at length on creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better. What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I was learning, is the ability to create these lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten.
The next item on the list was six bottles of white wine, which we placed on the stained white couch next to the piano.
“Now, animate images tend to be more memorable than inanimate images. Perhaps you should imagine the wines discussing their relative merits among themselves,” Ed suggested.
let’s imagine that the chardonnay is insulting the soil quality of the sauvignon blanc, while the gewürztraminer is giggling away at the expense of the rieslings… That sort of thing.”
My next assignment was to begin collecting architecture. I needed a stockpile of memory palaces at my disposal – Ed said I’d need about a dozen just to begin my training. He has several hundred, a metropolis of mental storehouses.
Ed had long ago learned the bulk of Paradise Lost by heart (at the rate of 200 lines an hour, he told me) and had been slowly slogging his way through Shakespeare.
Remembering numbers proved to be one of the most useful of my new skills. I used a technique known as the Major System, which is a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace. The number 32, for example, would translate into MN, or the image of a man
When it comes to memorising long strings of numbers, such as 100,000 digits of pi, most mental athletes use a more complex technique that is known as “person-action-object”, or PAO. In the PAO system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Unlike the Major System, these associations are entirely arbitrary and have to be learned in advance, which is to say it takes a lot of remembering just to be able to remember
With Ed’s help, I laboriously created my own PAO system to correspond to the 52 cards in a pack. To be maximally memorable, one’s images have to appeal to one’s own sense of what is colourful and interesting. Which means that a mental athlete’s stock of PAO images is a pretty good guide to the gremlins that live in someone’s subconscious: in Ed’s case, lingerie models and Depression-era cricketers; in my case, 80s and early 90s icons. The king of hearts, for me, was Michael Jackson moonwalking with a white glove.
Psychologists have discovered that the most efficient method is to force yourself to type faster than feels comfortable, and to allow yourself to make mistakes. Ericsson suggested I try the same thing with cards. He told me to find a metronome and memorise a card every time it clicked. Once I figured out my limits, I set the metronome 10-20% faster and kept trying at the quicker pace until I stopped making mistakes. Within a couple of days, I was off the OK plateau and my card times began falling again at a steady clip.
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labelled “deliberate practice”. Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises.
If I ever have to remember something rote, I’ll try this…