“Hi, my name is Lisa von Sturmer and I’ve already forgotten your name. Damn.” If I’m being totally honest, that’s usually the thought going through my mind right after I shake someone’s hand for the first time at every networking event I’ve ever been to. Of course, everyone knows that remembering names is a key way to making an impression on someone – it makes them feel important and memorable, and it makes you look powerful. One of the favourite legends of the much esteemed Bill Clinton is that he never forgets a name or face, even if he only met you for 2 minutes ten years ago. As much as I would aspire to such Clintonesque feats of memory, I’d settle gladly for remembering the names of people I met last week. Or the French I learned in high school. Or, where I left my cellphone. So, when I stumbled across Josh Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein” and read the tagline “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”, I was instantly sold.
The promise of memory-hacking names was all I needed! If I could learn to remember anything else, well… bonus. Considering the book centres around Foer’s forays into the World Memory Championship and his intensive training regime, I wasn’t expecting a very compelling read. I grabbed a copy on the way down to Vegas and got so drawn into the highly competitive world of international memory champions, historical memory lore, tips, tricks and mind hacks that I ended up spending a few early nights in my room just to finish the book.
Get Good Brain
What I found so fascinating while reading about these champions – who manage to memorize pages of random digits in an hour, or the order of a pack of cards in minutes – was the finding that their brains weren’t really that different than mine. Unlike savants or geniuses, when memory champions have their brains scanned while they’re memorizing or reciting, they activate roughly the same areas of their brains that I would. So, why can’t I memorize a deck of cards? Well (as Josh proves), technically I probably could – if I learn a trick and spend some time practicing. That’s what Josh had done. After covering the US Memory Championship as a journalist and befriending some champions, Foer in turn becomes their protege.
To prove the point that anyone can become a memory champion, he began training to compete for the 2006 US Memory Championship (fun fact: the book often references America’s dismal standing in International Memory Championship rankings. To get a sense of Canada’s place in the memory world, well… this year the grand prize for the new Canadian Memory Champion is $50. Not to drop any spoilers, but Josh ends up surprising a lot of people with his progress in the championship.
So, you may be wondering, what’s this brain trick that let’s me memorize anything (and why didn’t I learn this in school when it could have been useful?). The process is known as building “memory palaces”. The term has its beginnings in Greek mythology, centering around the poet Simonedes of Ceos walking out of a bustling dinner party when the building (palace) suddenly collapses and all inside are crushed. Families are devastated and no one can remember who was in attendance. With a flash of insight, Simonedes closes his eyes and sees the dinner hall intact. He then imagines himself walking through the room, and as he moves around, he can see each person as they were sitting at the table.
He successfully remembers all the guests in order, and voila – the art of memory is born! The process of imagining walking through a familiar space was enough to jog his memory to the other key information he was looking for: who was there. This same process can actually be used to help us remember almost anything.
Essentially, since our spatial memory is so strong and sophisticated, the trick is that we build “palaces”, rooms, or familiar homes in our mind that we can walk through in our imagination. We then create a memorable image of the data we’re trying to remember and “put” it somewhere in the house. How do you know your spatial memory is sophisticated? Well, where in your house was your first bedroom? Where was the bathroom in your first apartment? Which cupboard were the oreos kept in when you were growing up? Are you not amazed at how easy it is to remember those details? I bet right now if you tried, you could easily walk through your childhood home in your mind and remember the colours, textures and oddities of the layout. This is a pretty remarkable feat of memory, and as Josh points out, we really don’t give our minds the credit they deserve.
Set It, Don’t Forget It
So, how do we “put” something in our memory palace to remember? How do we make data memorable? Well, we know we’re really good at remembering spaces; we’re also really good at remembering unusual, sexually charged and outlandish images. Whenever I see a red candle now, I think of Brick from Anchorman. We want to make as many unusual associations with the data as possible so that we have as many neural connections to the information as possible, thus making it more likely to be remembered. Here’s an example; I want to remember to pick up some items from the store on my way home: 3 pairs of socks, asparagus, and a copy of O Magazine (it’s good!). Let’s pretend my phone is dead and I have no paper; I actually have to rely on my own memory for once (Josh talks a lot about our current externalizing of memory and the pros and cons associated with that). So how do I go about remembering?
First, I imagine my apartment and the entrance way. I can see clearly the table and the bowl where I always leave my keys. This is going to be a great place to leave my “socks” memory. I imagine a little gnome that eats two separate socks and then pops rolled socks out the other end into the key bowl. I see him pop out 3 pairs of rolled socks. This image makes me laugh, revealing a bit about my humour levels perhaps, which helps me to remember. I then walk down the hall into the kitchen. It’s a great place to leave my asparagus. Since my imagination loves gnomes, I imagine a medieval joust on the kitchen counter with gnomes using asparagus to knock each other down. Cute! Now I just need to get my O Magazine somewhere. I walk over to my favourite reading corner and I decide that’s the perfect place to drop Oprah herself. She’s in a cute pink pj, waiting with a glass of wine for me, and as I walk over to her she says, “Let’s read together Lisa!”.
A dream come true. No way I’m forgetting that! So now that I’ve placed all my memories, I’ll do a quick walk through of my apartment just to review: sock gnome on the entrance table, asparagus joust on the kitchen counter, girls night with Oprah on the couch. Now when I get to the store, I only have to remember to walk through my apartment in my mind, and I’ll see all the items I need to remember. This concept actually works extremely well. Foer goes into this process in much greater detail in his book; weeks later, I can still remember most of the examples he used to teach it.
Save My Name, Save My Name
You can use this memory palace process to remember data for tests, to make special language palaces to remember vocabulary, memorize quotes, text, or all sorts of things. You can also use a similar strategy to remember names. Let’s pretend I’m introduced to a man named John Randall. He’s got scruffy hair, so to help me remember his name I instantly visualize him playing a game of baseball in the snow, with John Snow from Game of Thrones, also known for his scruffy hair. Instead of a bat, my new friend is using a shovel handle, since it sounds like Randall, to hit the ball. Also, they’re naked. Now I *can’t* forget! So, the next time I see Mr.Randall and his wild hair, I’ll quickly think naked John Snow, baseball, handle, Randall, boom! Name remembered. For me, that trick alone is worth the $17 I paid for the book. For you cheapos out there, let me be clear in that I’m merely skimming the surface of the wealth of memory lore “Moonwalking with Einstein” uncovers. I would highly suggest if you were slightly intrigued by the actual success of the examples above that you delve deeper into your own potential by reading the book.
While I haven’t matched my dream swagger-coach Clinton in his memory magic, I have made some significant progress with my name game. So in future, if I do ever happen to meet you, dear reader, at a conference and I’m shaking your hand with a gleam in my eye, it’s because I’m making you unforgettable. With gnomes.