Dominic O’Brien failed his O levels and left school aged 16. Not long after, he saw someone memorise a pack of cards in under three minutes. With discipline, effort and bucketloads of practice, he beat the record and became the first and eight-times World Memory Champion. ‘Memory comes down to desire and 2,500 year-old techniques.’
Ben Pridmore can permanently remember what happened on 96 historical dates in 5 minutes. ‘It’s all about understanding how memory works.’
Ed Cooke can remember 99 names and faces in 15 minutes. ’My memory is quite average. But even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.’
Joshua Foer covered the World Memory Championships in 2005 as a journalist. Fascinated, he decided to enter in 2006: ‘I didn’t have a clue how my own memory worked. Perhaps the best way to understand human memory would be to try very hard to optimise it.’ His book about it is called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering. This blogpost is about what he learned.
‘Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture: remembering was everything. Only through memorizing could ideas be truly incorporated into the mind. Techniques existed to etch into the brain foundational texts and ideas. Athenian Themistocles could remember the names of all 20,000 Athenians. Roman orators like Cicero argued that the art of memory and an inventory of knowledge was a vital instrument for the invention of new ideas. Orthodox Jews memorized all 5,422 pages of the Talmud so that when a pin was stuck through it, they could tell which words it passed through on every page. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students were not just taught what to remember, but how to remember it. In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct. King Cyrus could name all the soldiers in his army. Scipio knew all the names of the Roman people. The Greek scholar Charmadas recited the contents of any volume in libraries that people asked him to recite. Seneca could repeat two thousand names in the order they were given to him. Ad Herrenium calls memory the *treasure house of inventions* with two components: images and places. Images represent the contents of what one wishes to remember, places, where those images are stored.
‘A trained memory was the key to cultivating judgement and citizenship. What one memorised shaped one’s character. Memory training was seen as a form of character building. Oral poetry was a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopaedia of ethics, politics, history and technology which each citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment.
‘Over the last millennia, we’ve gradually accumulated a vast superstructure of external memory that has sped up exponentially in recent years. Literature, music, law, politics, history, science, maths: our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories. There’s more to remember than ever before.
‘How did memory end up so marginalised? Why did these techniques disappear? How did our culture end up forgetting how to remember?
‘Once upon a time, with no alphabet or paper, anything that had to be preserved had to be preserved in memory. Any story, idea or insight had to be remembered.
‘Today, it often seems we remember very little. Books and the internet store information; calendars remembers our schedules; GPS supplants our spatial memory; phones displant numbers of friends and family. Gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things any more. Amnesiacs, we don’t remember what we read – or sometimes, whether we’ve read it. Our everyday memories have atrophied and we’ve become estranged from disciplined memory.’
By 2006, Josh Foer had delved deep into the lost art of memory, expended enormous effort in training his mind, dived into the scientific literature, and had himself neuroscientifically tested by the world expert on experts, K. Anders Ericsson. He entered the US Memory Championship. This involved:
- 15 minutes to remember 99 names and faces;
- 15 minutes to remember a 100-line poem;
- 5 minutes to memorise as many events and their dates as possible
- 5 minutes to memorise the order of 99 2-digit numbers;
- 3 minutes to memorise the order of a pack of playing cards;
- 5 minutes to remember 10 pieces of information from 5 strangers, including names, hobbies, favourite foods and birthdays.
That year, at the dizzying speed of 1 minute 40 seconds for 52 cards, Josh won the US memory contest.
Over the year and in his book, he recorded what he’d learned.
1. Memory is domain-specific
Chess masters still forget names, and memory champions still lose their keys:
‘I could recall more lines of poetry, speeches, more people’s names. The paradox was, I was still stuck with the same old shoddy memory that misplaced my car keys. My working memory was still as limited by the same constraints as everyone else. We tend to think of memory as monolithic; it’s actually a collection of independent modules. Some people have good memories for names, but not numbers.
Memory is not an all-purpose skill, but linked to content via schemata. As teachers, we need to carefully select what we want students to remember – and it’s not 52 cards in 5 minutes or random sequences of digits – it’s meaningful subject content.
2. Deliberate practice is the only route to improvement
‘My experience had validated that practice makes perfect, but only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, deliberate practice.’
‘Amateur musicians are more likely to spend more of their time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to spend time on exercises and drills and focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. *How you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend*. The single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he’s played, but the amount of time he’s spent alone working through old games. Surgeons don’t plateau because they get instant feedback on operations.’
Practice can be made more deliberate by setting goals, getting feedback and tracking scores.
3. Cues make things memorable
‘Our minds seem built to remember spaces and images. The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories that our brains aren’t good at holding on to and change them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. Take something unmemorable and convert it to a series of visual images mentally arranged within an imagined space, and suddenly forgettable items become unforgettable.’
‘Make it visual, concrete, outlandish, animate, dynamic, anthropormorphised, vivid, unusual, unexpected, unique, distinct, bizarre, striking, detailed, attention-grabbing, sensory (smell & taste) – make it durable’.
Cognitive scientist Gregory Yates and evidence-based educationalist John Hattie review Moonwalking With Einstein in their book The Science of Learning and come to this conclusion:
There are two implications I see for teachers. The first is to ask, what exactly do we want pupils to remember? The second is to ask, how do we help them remember it?
In English, I want my students to remember quotations and who said them; events and the dates they happened; as well as how to analyse complex texts and connect them to their contexts. I’d like to help them remember poems and Shakespearian speeches off by heart. I’d like them to remember their own speeches without notes. Just as Cicero and Shakespeare were expected at school to memorise sententiae (wise sayings), I’d like them to remember aphorisms and words of wisdom from the ages.
How do I become a high-mnemonic teacher? I could teach my pupils how memory works, and help them understand how to remember better than before. I could embed revisiting so that we’re always reviewing material they’ve memorised, not just in revision season but throughout the year. I could teach them how to create their own striking, vivid, unusual cues for subject content.
As Josh, Ed, Ben and Dominic reveal, you can remember anything you set your mind to.