Moonwalking With Einstein
- Joshua Foer
- My last highlight
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Physiologically, we are virtually identical to our ancestors who painted images of bison on the walls of the Lascaux cave in France, among the earliest cultural artifacts to have survived to the present day. Our brains are no larger or more sophisticated than theirs. If one of their babies were to be dropped into the arms of an adoptive parent in twenty-first-century New York, the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.
Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.
Luria would go on to study S for the next thirty years, and would eventually write a book about him, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, that has become one of the most enduring classics in the literature of abnormal psychology.
Even though many people claim to have a photographic memory, there’s no evidence that anyone can actually store mental snapshots and recall them with perfect fidelity. Indeed, only one case of photographic memory has ever been described in the scientific literature.
Everything about Buzan gives the strong impression of someone wanting to make a strong impression.
A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception—some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web.
Because our memories don’t follow any kind of linear logic, we can neither sequentially search them nor browse them.
“The trick is actually deceptively simple,” he said. “It is always to associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine. It’s all about creating a vivid image in your 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 created will simply pop back into your mind . . . So, hmm, you said your name was Josh Foer, eh?” He raised an eyebrow and gave his chin a melodramatic stroke. “Well, I’d imagine you joshing me where we first met, outside the competition hall, and I’d imagine myself breaking into four pieces in response. Four/Foer, get it? That little image is more entertaining—to me, at least—than your mere name, and should stick nicely in the mind.” It occurred to me that this was a kind of manufactured synesthesia.
Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item.
It is the vast memory bank of chick bottoms that allows him or her to recognize patterns in the vents glanced at so quickly. In most cases, the skill is not the result of conscious reasoning, but pattern recognition. It is a feat of perception and memory, not analysis.
The chess experiments reveal a telling fact about memory, and about expertise in general: We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.
De Groot believed that his experiments with chess masters had much larger implications. He argued that expertise in “the field of shoemaking, painting, building, [or] confectionary” is the result of the same accumulation of “experiential linkings.” According to Ericsson, what we call expertise is really just “vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.” In other words, a great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise; it is the essence of expertise.
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.
Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
In addition to the Ad Herennium, there would be translated excerpts of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and Cicero’s De Oratore for me to read, followed by a collection of medieval writings on memory by Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Hugh of St. Victor, and Peter of Ravenna.
In his essay “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” says Darnton. “They had only a few books—the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two—and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.”
Remembering numbers proved to be one of the real world applications of the memory palace that I relied on almost every day. I used a technique known as the “Major System,” invented in the seventeenth century by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace.
When it comes to memorizing long strings of numbers, like a hundred thousand digits of pi or the career batting averages of every New York Yankee Hall of Famer, most mental athletes use a more complex technique that is known on the Worldwide Brain Club (the online forum for memory junkies, Rubik’s cubers, and mathletes) as “person-action-object,” or, simply, PAO.
In the PAO system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object).
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing—to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.
Ericsson suggested I try the same thing with cards. He told me to find a metronome and to try to memorize a card every time it clicked. Once I figured out my limits, he instructed me to set the metronome 10 to 20 percent faster than that and keep trying at the quicker pace until I stopped making mistakes. Whenever I came across a card that was particularly troublesome, I was supposed to make a note of it, and see if I could figure out why it was giving me problems. It worked, and within a couple days I was off the OK plateau and my card times began falling again at a steady clip.
The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment.
Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.