Transcript for Joshua Foer on Memory Palaces


Jim Fleming: Would you like to sharpen your memory? Not just a little, but dramatically? What if I handed you a deck of 52 cards in random order, and gave you five minutes to memorize them in sequence, could you do it? You might with a few tips from Joshua Foer, author of the book 'Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything'. He says the trick is to tell yourself an unforgettable story. Here's how he did it...


Joshua Foer: Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat-man and five of clubs has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind's eye: he has hawked a fat globule of spittle, nine of clubs, on Albert Einstein's thick white mane, three of diamonds, and delivered a devastating karate kick, five of spades, to the groin of Pope Benedict the sixteenth, 6 of diamonds. Michael Jackson, the king of hearts, has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated, two of clubs, on a salmon burger, king of clubs, and captured his flatulence, queen of clubs in a balloon, six of spades. Rhea Pearlman diminutive cheers bartendress and queen of spades has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol, seven of clubs, in a highly explicit, and in this case, anatomically improbable two digit act of congress, three of clubs.  


Fleming: You know those are very vivid images, and I think you need to explain..


Foer: Well, those images were conjured up in my mind's eye when I was training to enter a bizarre contest called 'The United States Memory Championship' and the reason that they are so bizarre is because their bizarreness makes them memorable and what I was trying to do is transform something unmemorable, a deck of playing cards, into something that I would find unforgettable, which Dom DeLuise is.


Fleming: Ha,ha,ha. well how did you get started on this? I mean, I get the explanation,but... wanting to get there I guess is what we're really gonna talk about and then why it works.


Foer: Well, it's a bizarre story. There's a contest held every spring in New York City called 'The United States Memory Championship' that I had gone to to cover in 2005 as a science journalist. And I had shown up expecting to find a bunch of individuals with, you know, photographic memories, I suppose, sephonts, I don't know...because they were able to memorize entire poems, hundreds of random numbers and what I found was something different. The people who were competing in this contest all told me that they had just average memories and that they had trained themselves to perform these incredible mental gymnastics. And I was intrigued and ended up spending the better part of the next year training my memory and also investigating it, trying to understand, you know, how it works.


Fleming: How long did it take you to begin to believe that they were telling you the truth, because they they were doing what most of us would recognize as extraordinary feats.


Foer: Right, and I, my mind was blown. I ended up meeting a fellow named Ed Cook who had one of the best trained memories in England and he told me that, you know, he'd be happy to teach me some of these ancient techniques. It turns out, that the techniques these guys were using date back to Ancient Greece, these were the same techniques that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars used to memorize entire books. What he showed me was a technique that was supposedly invented twenty five hundred years ago by the Greek poet, Simonides. It's known as the 'memory palace' and it involves, essentially creating an imagined building in your mind's eye and filling that building with imagery. The weirder and more bizarre, the better. And when you walk back through that building, you can see those images that you left behind earlier.


Fleming: So, if you want to remember your shopping lists, you can put a banana on the sofa and cottage cheese in the refrigerator, I suppose. And I'm not sure what I'd put in the bathroom, but it would be memorable if I put it there.


Foer: Right, maybe it's your orange juice or whatever i-, whatever the third item is that you need to pick up. But, once upon a time, these techniques were... not only widely known, but widely practiced. You know, people actually had to depend on their memories which is an idea that is kind of foreign to us today. Today we have Iphones and Blackberries and Google. We've essentially outsourced the role of remembering to technology.


Fleming: I can see putting bananas on the sofa, even though it's illogical. I can see even orange juice in the bathtub. Where I start to wonder about this is the random digits. I mean, in this, this memory championship, you have to memorize a thousand random digits in order. Do you put them all over the 'memory palace'?


Foer: To compete at a high level, in this quote unquote 'sport', you need to have lots and lots of memory palaces. The people who take this very seriously are collectors of architecture, actually, they are walking around and they go into a building and they say 'would this make a good memory palace?' and if it will, they save it to store their memories later. Once upon a time, in the fifteenth century, one of my favorite stories, there was a guy called Peter of Ravenna, who had thousands of memory palaces, and he filled them with quotes and sources and facts he wanted to use, he was a layer..


Fleming: Course you, you also tell the story of uh, of one of the contestants, in the national memory championships i believe, who memorized, oh I don't know how many thousands digits of pie, only to be beaten, and afterward, painstakingly went through his memory palace to get those digits out of there.


Foer: Oh, it's such a depressing story, ya he had memorized fifty thousand didgits of pie, he was going to set a world record. Somebody comes out of the woodwork and memorizes eighty thousand, and he had to then cleanse his memory palaces. He actually walked through them and imagined scrubbing the walls to erase these images so that they wouldn't interfere with other things that he would then use those memory palaces for.


Fleming: You're right, it's depressing. Now, you're a science journalist, you were intrigued by all of this. You must have also wondered why it works?


Foer: Right, it's a good question. One answer you might give is to say that 'look, the environment in which the human brain evolved is pretty different from the environment in which we live in today'. One thing our ancestors, who made their living as hunter-gatherers, didn't need to remember was phone numbers and word-for-word instructions from their bosses and the APUS history curriculum or whatever. What they did need to remember was where they found the food, where the resources were, the route back home. It's not surprising that we would have well-developed visual and spacial memories. It's what the brain was built for.


Fleming: There's been a lot of research that you've looked into as well. There are odd people. In fact, early in the book, there's a man who's, I guess, well-known within the field but goes by the initial 'S'... 


Foer: Yeah, 'S' Supposedly remembered almost everything. What's fascinating about him is that he was essentially dysfunctional, I mean he remembered too much. And, uh, really couldn't hold down a job, he was a journalist by training but never was very successful at it. Ended up making his living as a stage performer, essentially memorizing stuff on stage. It suggests something about memory that is actually quite profound, which is that it's not remembering so much as forgetting. It's actually the essence of thinking and of, and of being human at some level. 'S' couldn't make those distinctions. The trivial was just as important to him as the profound and, as a result, he just, he couldn't sort, he couldn't make his way through the world.


Fleming: The other end of this is another study that you looked into, a man who goes by the initials 'EP'.  


Foer: Yeah, I spent some time out in San Diego with EP. EP had what is probably the worst memory in the world. Uh, he subsequently passed away unfortunately. In 1992, a freakish virus attacked his brain, essentially cored it like an apple and knocked out the hippocampal regions, which are responsible for turning our perceptions into long-term memories. And without those hippocampal regions, he not only had lost everything that had happened to him since about 1950, he was also incapable of forming new memories. And what that meant was that he lived almost completely and entirely in the present. I mean he didn't even remember that he had a memory problem, which is quite astounding. And the thing that really astounded me about EP was that he was happy, uh living in this, he was like this perfect pathological Buddha, living completely and entirely in the present between this past that he couldn't remember and this future that he couldn't contemplate.


Fleming: Well, this is the fascinating thing isn't it? Because all of us are, especially those of us who are a little older, get concerned about loss of memory, about not being able to pull the right word up at the right time, about not being able to remember the car keys, about glancing at the shopping list and saying 'oh, there are only three things on it, I'll just go to the store and I'll pick all three up', and you get there and and you may remember one. Does what you've learned help with that?


Foer: If you want to remember stuff, you gotta be the kind of person who remembers to remember. You've gotta be, you gotta pay attention. I mean, when you put down those car keys and you don't remember where you put them, it's because you put them down absentmindedly, you weren't paying attention, which is fine, it's not important. But you can be the kind of person who moves through life treating everything like that, and you know, everything is like you're just throwing down your car keys, and that's a recipe for a forgettable life. If we're gonna remember stuff, we've gotta be mindful, we gotta be present, we gotta be there, we gotta realize that 'hey, I want to remember this'.


Fleming: Joshua Foer's book is called 'Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything'. By the way, Joshua went on to win the US Memory Championship. 

Comments for this interview

Programs (David Cain, 07/21/2013 - 7:47pm)

The most amazing program on radio. The interviewers and guests are outstanding!