The Art of Remembering Everything: A Q&A with Memory Champion Joshua Foer

BW: You write about the historical role memorizing has had in education, how compared to students today, a century ago students had to memorize a whole lot more — using the “drill-and-kill” rote memorization method.

You write: “Of course the goal of education is not merely to cram a bunch of facts into students’ heads. It’s to lead them to understand those facts … But even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spider web that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”

Are you hoping for education to return to the days of vast memorization — albeit using different methods, like memory palaces for memorization instead of rote drills?

JF: I think that overall we are better off than we were 100 years ago. The role of education is to create citizens and people that are thoughtful and curious and abstract thinkers. That’s what we want. I do think there’s probably been an over-de-emphasis on raw knowledge: You need to have stuff in your skull if you’re gong to have stuff to think about. I’m talking about something subtle in education, a slight reorientation.

BW: Do you think there’s a limit on brain space, how much people devote to memorizing where others may devote to, say, understanding relationships or improving the world?

JF: No I don’t think it works like that. The idea that you can only store so much up there is not the way it works; if anything, it’s opposite: The more you throw up there, the easier it is to add more stuff. One of the things that united the competitors is that there’s actually a degree of creative imagination, which I found surprising. The one thing that all of these events and this sport depends upon is being able to imagine stuff that’s really weird and really unforgettable.

BW: What do you think the connection between memory and happiness is? Does a better memory make a happier person?

JF: I think it has to do with how you use your memories. There are people who have great memories and dwell on failures and sad things and are depressed, and there are people who dwell on success and happy things, who are probably well adjusted. E.P. [the man whose hippocampus was destroyed and had couldn’t form new memories or remember anything beyond his childhood and his service in the merchant marines] was relatively content. Living completely in the present.

BW: Some people in your book believe that aging has no effect on memory? What do you think?

JF: I think that I quote that skeptically. Aging is a real phenomenon and it comes with real cognitive costs, and long-term memory loss is often, sadly, one of them.

BW: How do you think neuroscience will change this?

JF: I think it’s going to be an exciting next couple of decades. One thing I came to appreciate is that all the science is the last frontier — there is so much that is so poorly understood about how memory works, and the brain, and it’s waiting to be figured out.

To Remember A Name

“It is always best to associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine,” says Ed Cooke, one of Foer’s memory trainers. “It’s all about creating a vivid image in our mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name. When you need to reach back and remember the person’s name at some later date, the image you create will simply pop back into your mind.”

To Remember Think Of
Josh Foer You joshing me and me breaking into four pieces.
Amy A bulls-eye target on my face
Bill Bill Clinton or a dollar bill
David David Hasselhoff
Leah Princess Leia

This article was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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