Thursday, March 24, 2011

Commit it to Memory

What k-12 student couldn't benefit from practicing a good memory technique?  According to Joshua Foer, having a powerful memory was once equated with genius.  Today, with the "outsourcing" of information to digital technology, that is not so much the case, and people with other aptitudes are better able to excel.

MPR Kerri Miller Discussion with Joshua Foer

But make no mistake.  Tapping into one's memory is critical to being a successful student.

On the practical side of memory skills, Foer says the general principle is to "pay attention."  People are also naturally better at remembering things that have significance to them, and the more senses you can engage and emotions you can associate to something you've seen or heard, the better.

  • Want to remember someone's name?  Bounce it back to them as they tell you what it is.
  • Need a good language acquisition resource? Try Memrise -- a website in progress designed for language learning .
  • Need to give a speech?  Don't remember it word for word. Instead, create an image 'topic by topic.'

Memory techniques can be difficult to develop for structured information. Mnemonics, creating musical rhymes and branching are possibilities here. As for the student who's hitting the books for the test, we are indebted to everyone from Gutenberg to 3M:

The simple act of being able to tab a book section with a "one or two word jotting" --is a gift, Miller and Foer agreed.

Before the printing press, people obviously didn't own many books, nor were there libraries.  There was a premium on remembering what you read.  After Gutenberg, it became possible-- through page numbers, tables of contents, indexes-- to access information externally.  Add the variable of book ownership and tabbing, and you have a remarkable informational retrieval device, even before the invention of Google :)

The primary focus of this discussion on memory, however, concerned Foer's preparation advice for the annual U.S. Memory Championship in New York City, which he won in 2006.  Contrary to popular opinion that certain people possess "photographic memories," Foer said his success depended on the adoption a year-long regimen  that involved  taking unmemorable things ( random numbers, poems, decks of cards, names of strangers) and making them 'super duper memorable' in his mind's eye.

"The art of this is in taking those unmemorable numbers and transforming them in your mind's eye through some sort of a process into a scene that is so bizarre, so beautiful, so strange, so unlike anything you've ever seen before that you can't forget it," Foer explained.

This effort is so serious that 'blinders beneath memory goggles' and 'earplugs under earmuffs' are required to block out as much sensory information as possible to get about the business of remembering. 

Foer explained most memory champions employ the technique of a Memory Palace (derived from the Roman Cicero and the Greek Simonides before him) to create visual associations with particular objects in their quest to become quality rememberers.  Cicero believed this technique was so well-known that it needed no explanation to his countrymen.  Because of  the decline of the oral tradition  and the advent of many storage devices besides people's minds for retaining things, ironically the ancient technique has been largely forgotten.

After trying it, Foer was surprised to find how well the technique worked.  Surprisingly, Foer asserts that memory training is not an innate natural talent, and that many such people are also accomplished ATHLETES, as development in this area is about "discipline", "will" & "grit."

Maybe there is hope for us average folks.

1 comment:

  1. I bought a memory book 10 years ago that teaches one how to remember names, lists, speeches, and more. It has many good memory tools and tips in the book and I found it worked well for remembering a list. However, it does take a lot of mental effort to learn the system and to employ it. You really have to have, as you say, discipline, will, and grit. Even after reading the book twice, I still have trouble with names.