Most of us would like to have a better memory. We imagine our lives would be better — simpler, faster, easier — if we could recall the things that slip our minds on a daily basis and, increasingly, as we get older. But journalist Joshua Foer took the task more seriously than a passing whim. After witnessing the USA Memory Championship in 2005, where competitors memorize poems, decks of playing cards, and strings of numbers in a certain period of time, Foer became seriously interested in this community of mental athletes. After reading that one competitor had said, “It’s all about technique and understanding how the memory works,” and “Anyone can do it, really,” Foer decided to train for the next USA Memory Championship.
Using age-old techniques such as building a memory palace to store images in locations in his mind, turning numbers into letters and thus into words, and turning names into images (See: “To Remember A Name”), Foer began one year of training to become the 2006 USA Memory Champion, which he catalogs in the book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.” The book not only documents Foer’s training program but researches the science of memory and the history of memory-training literature from the fifth century B.C. up to the present, including modern case studies of a man who couldn’t remember anything beyond his childhood, not even that he just met you a day ago, and a man who remembered everything.
“What would it mean to have all that otherwise-lost knowledge at my fingertips?” he writes in the book’s opening. “I couldn’t help but think that it would make me more persuasive, more confident, and, in some fundamental sense, smarter. Certainly I’d be a better journalist, friend, and boyfriend. But more than that, I imagined that having a memory like (World Memory Champion) Ben Pridmore’s would make me an altogether more attentive, perhaps even wiser, person. To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. Surely some of the forgetting that seems to plague us is healthy and necessary. If I didn’t forget so many of the dumb things I’ve done, I’d probably be unbearably neurotic. But how many worthwhile ideas have gone unthought and connections unmade because of my memory’s shortcomings?”
Here, Foer discusses the importance of memory in an increasingly digitized society, what kind of memory it’s possible to increase, and where he might have left his car.
Brain World: You write that the only thing that differentiates us from our caveman ancestors is our memories: “Not the memories that reside in our own brains, for the child born today enters the world just as much a blank slate as the child born 30,000 years ago, but rather the memories that are stored outside ourselves — in books, photographs, museums, and these days in digital media.
“Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last 30 millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids — a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years … Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.”
Today’s society, you point out, has plenty of ways for us to remember things, such as daily planners for our schedules, a GPS for directions, Google for the rest of the information. You even talk about a man who records every moment of his life so he won’t have to remember anything. Why do we need to remember anything?
Joshua Foer: It’s really handy to outsource certain acts of remembering to technology. We all agree that we are better off not having to remember a bunch of phone numbers, but have our Blackberry or iPhone remember it. There are certain memories we don’t want to outsource, that we’re better off having in our minds. Like memories of our lives. I think this [movement] is just starting, that we’ll be using more technology to store things like phone numbers, and we’re happy to have computers, but it’s better for us to remember our own actual memories. So I think it’s a mixed bag. But in the end, I say, “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember.”
BW: Like many of the competitors, for training you donned industrial earmuffs and goggles to block out noise and visual distractions. Has this training changed the way you think about multitasking?
JF: I do think that remembering requires attention. Multitasking is about spreading attention thin, and that’s a recipe for being forgetful.
BW: You cite neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire’s 2000 study with fMRIs of London cab drivers who had to memorize the location and traffic patterns of 25,000 streets, and also her study of mental athletes. She found that their anatomical brain structures were the same as regular people, but that they accessed different parts of the brain. Do you think that the brain is a muscle you can train, or is memory a skill you become an expert at?
JF: The brain as a muscle is a metaphor. It’s got some things going for it, it’s got some things that are problematic. It is not simply the case that doing these sort of memory tasks improves some sort of generalizable memory, in the way that lifting weights strengthens the muscles. There’s an old distinction that goes back to the earliest writing in classical Latin, the distinction between natural and artificial memory.