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.
BW: You compare it a computer, to the hard drive you’re born with and the software you run on your hardware.
JF: You can improve your artificial memory, trying to make it more efficient, but it’s not fundamentally improving your natural memory. And that’s confusing sometimes.
BW: Yes. A few days after you won the USA Memory Championship you went out drinking and forgot that you drove there and took the subway home. You wrote, “I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed fundamentally unchanged.” Do you have to consciously use the techniques you learned — say, to remember someone’s name, or that you drove your car to a bar, or that it’s your wife’s birthday — to remember something?
JF: Ultimately, what matters is how you function in the actual world, so if there are techniques to be used to function better, you should use them. The thing about memory techniques is that they work when you remember to use them — you have to remember to remember. The advantage is if you’re going to use the techniques. The general principles are sort of broadly applicable — I think I probably took away even more than remembering a credit card number, but they’re not something you actually need on an everyday basis.
BW: So if your working memory hasn’t really improved, were there any benefits to your year of training and all the memory techniques?
JF: It’s fun and nice, and knowing people’s names does come in handy. Sometimes the ability to remember a thousand numbers is like having a Lamborghini in the garage. I try and keep in shape, because if you’re not training you lose some of the speed. If I’m going shopping I’ll try to remember my shopping list. But the more important lesson is the general principles behind why they work — it’s about paying attention, and a kind of depth of process. You don’t have to be building memory palaces or memorizing cards to use those principles in your daily life.
If you throw down your keys and don’t remember, then you weren’t paying attention. You can be the person who treats everything like that, or the kind of person who is mindful and paying attention and is memorable, and not just be somebody who throws down the keys all the time.
BW: Before the contest, they talk about emptying your memory palace, an imaginary house with different rooms where you place outrageously visual images. How do you do that? How do you forget something you have been working so hard to remember?
JF: There’s two ways: You can metaphorically walk through and scrub the walls, as a conscious, willful act; or you just don’t think about that memory palace for a long time, and let [the images] fade. If you don’t go back and revisit it, they will fade. That’s another way of emptying them.
BW: At one of the poetry-memorizing contests, you found that many of the men used images to memorize the poems, but some of the women used emotions. The men didn’t really have to understand the poetry, but one woman had to understand it and know how it made her feel. Are there different senses for memory that work differently for different people and different genders? Like, will someone be able to remember an event based on music, or food or smells, or emotions or images? Can a person improve different sensory memories?
JF: I don’t think it’s an innate proclivity — the things that we do are the things we find interesting. Just as one of the things I write about is that chess grandmasters have incredible memories for details in their fields of expertise — that’s something they’re not born with, they develop. In our own little niche ways, we develop extraordinary memories for certain things. Some people are more visual and some are more auditory. You should go with what works.
BW: You talk about actively making something a multisensory image, something visually vivid, with smells and sounds that you can feel and touch.
JF: The idea is to increase the depth at which you’re processing something: The more associational hooks you can put on something, the more memorable it can be. It’s about doing it really fast and coming up with ways to see the images and smell them and feel them in your mind’s eye, because that makes them more memorable. It’s true that the more we are engaged by something, and the more that we engage the other things we know in our senses, in terms of how to structure information, the more memorable stuff becomes.