Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The art and science of remembering everything.
[A USA memory champion’s path to the title]
year 2005 USA memory championship had five events. First the
contestants had to learn by heart a 50-line unpublished poem called ‘The
Tapestry of Me:. Then they were provided with 99 photographic shots
accompanied by first and last names and given 15 minutes to memorize as
many as them possible.Then they had another 15 minutes to memorize a
list of 300 random words, five minutes to memories a page of 1000 random
digits (25 lines of numbers, forty numbers to a line) and another 5
minutes to learn the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards.
the mental athletes I met in that championship, kept insisting, as Ben
Pridmore had in his interview, that anyone could do what they do. It was
simply a matter of learning to ‘think in more memorable ways’ using
the ‘extraordinary simple’ 2,500 year old mnemonic technique known as
‘memory palace’ that Simonides of Ceos had supposedly invented in the
rubble of the great banquet hall of collapse.
techniques of the memory palace - as known as the journey method or the
method of loci, and more broadly as the 'ars memorativa' or art of memory
- were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and
instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian and flowered in
the Middle ages as a way for the pious to memories everything from
sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked hell.
leader of the renaissance in memory training is a slick 67 year old
British educator and self-styled guru named Tony Buzan who claims to
have the highest ‘creative quotient’ in the world. He founded the World
Memory Championship in 1991 and has since established national
championship in more than a dozen countries from China to South Africa
to Mexico. According to press reports, Michael Jackson ran up a $343,000
bill for Buzan’s mind-boosting services shortly before his death).
reputedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came
to be known as the art of memory. To use Simonides’ technique, all one
has to do is convert something unmemorable, like a string of numbers or a
deck of cards or a shopping list into series of engrossing visual
images and mentally arrange them within an imagined space and suddenly
those forgettable items become unforgettable.
all the nitty-gritty details we have about classical memory training
were first described in a short, anonymously authored Latin rhetoric
textbook called the ‘Rhetorica ad Herennium, written sometime between 86
& 82 B.C. It is only truly complete discussion of the memory
technique invented by Simonides to have survived into the Middle ages.
Though the intervening 2000 years have seen quite a few innovations in
the art of memory, the basic techniques have remained fundamentally
unchanged from those described in the ‘Ad Herennium’. In addition to 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.
training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the
language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were
taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it. Just look at
Pliny the Elder’s natural History, the first-century encyclopedia that
chronicled all things wondrous and useful for winning bar ebts in the
classical world, including the bar bets in the classical world,
including the most exceptional memories then known to history.
Ad Herennium begins by making a distinction between natural memory and
artificial memory. ‘the natural memory which is embedded in our minds,
born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is that memory
which is strengthened by a kind of training and system of discipline”.
In other words, natural memory is the hardware you are born with.
Artificial memory is the software you run on your hardware. Artificial
memory has two components: images and places. Images represent the
contents of what one wishes to remember. Places - or loci, are where
those images are stored. The idea is to create a space in the mind’s
eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize and then
populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want
to remember. Known as the ‘method of loci’ by the Romans, such a
building would later come to be called a ‘memory palace’. Authors of Ad
Herennium urged his readers to do the same with every image they wanted
to remember; the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better.
we see in everyday life things that are pretty, ordinary and banal, we
generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred
by anything novel or marvelous. but if we see or hear something
exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable,
or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time”. Peter of
Ravenna, author of the most famous memory textbook of the 15th century,
first asks the pardon of chaste and religious men before revealing “a
secret which I have long remained silent about” if you wish to remember
quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory
places; the memory is marvelously excited by images of women”.
though the best American mnemonics can memorize 100s of random digits
in an hour, USA records still pale in comparison to those of the
Europeans. Generally, nobody in N.America takes memory sport seriously
enough to stop drinking three months before the world championship, like
the 8 time world memory champion Dominic O”Brien used to do, and from
the looks of it, few competitors engage in the rigorous physical
training regimen that Buzan recommends. (One of Buzan’s first
recommendation is to get in shape) Nobody downs daily glasses of cod
liver oil or takes omega -3 supplements.
Kicks daily schedule for the championship - early rise, yoga, skipping,
superfoods(including blueberries and cod liver oil), four hour
training, two glasses of wine per day (from the potassium rich soil of
the Languedoc-Roussillon in the South France), 30 minutes reflection
period sunset each evening and keeping a journal online.
US championship, which has just five events, none lasting longer than
15 minutes, the World Memory Championship is frequently referred as a
‘mental decathlon’ Its 10 events called ‘disciplines’ span three
grueling days, and each tests the competitors’ memories in a slightly
different way. Contestants have to memorize a previously unpublished
poem spanning several pages, pages of random words (record: 280 in 15
minutes), lists of binary digits (record:4,140 in 30 minutes), shuffled
decks of playing cards, a list of historical dates, and names and faces.
Some disciplines called ‘speed events’ test shows much the contestants
can memorize in 5 minutes (record: 405 digits). Two marathon disciplines
test how many decks of cards and random digits they can memorize in an
hour (records: 2,080 digits and 27 decks of cards).
earliest memory treatises described two types of recollection: memoria
rerum and memoria verborum, memory for things and memory for words. The
Roman rhetoric teacher Quintilian looked down on memoria verborum on the
grounds that creating such a vast number of images was not only
inefficient, since it would require a gargantuan memory palace, but also
unstable. Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point
by point not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De
Oratore, he suggests, that an orator delivering a speech should make one
image for each major topic he wants to cover and place each of those
images at a locus.
anonymous author of the Ad Herennium suggests that the best method for
remembering poetry for remembering poetry ad verbum is to repeat a line
two or three times before trying to see it as a series of images. The Ad
Herennium mentions that “most of the Greeks who have written on memory
have taken the course of listing images that correspond to a great
memory have taken the course of listing images that corresponds to a
great many words so that persons who wished to learn these images by
heart would have them ready without expending effort in search of them”.
Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes how the Egyptian god Theuth,
inventor of writing, came to Thamus, the king of Egypt and offered to
bestow his wonderful invention upon the Egyptian people. “here is the
branch of learning that will.... improves their memories,” Theuth said
to the Egyptian king. “My discovery provides a recipe for both memory
and wisdom”. But Thamus was reluctant to accept the gift. “If men learn
this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls’ he told the god.
“They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they
will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no
longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you
have discovered is a recipe not for memory but for reminding. And it is
no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance,
for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you
will make them seem to know much, while for the most past they will know
the sixteenth century, an italian philosopher and alchemist named
Giulio Camillo - known as Divine Camillo- had the clever idea of making
concrete what had for the previous 2000 years always been an ethereal
idea. It occurred to him that the system would work a whole lot better
if someone transformed the metaphor of the memory palace into a real
wooden building. He imagined creating a ‘theater of memory’ that would
serve as a universal library containing all the knowledge of mankind.
Camillo’s wooden memory palace was shaped like a Roman amphitheater, but
instead of the spectator sitting in the seats looking down on the
stage, he stood in the center and looked up at around, seven-tiered
edifice. All around the theater were paintings of Kabbalistic and
mythological figures as well as endless rows of drawers and boxes filled
with cards, on which were printed everything that was known and
everything that was knowable, including quotations from all the great
authors, categorized according to subject.
more than Camillo, the greatest practitioner of this dark, mystical
form of mnemonics was the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. In this book
‘On the shadow of ideas’, published in 1582, Bruno promised that his art
‘will help not only the memory but also all the powers of the soul”.
Memory training for Bruno was the key to spiritual enlightenment. Bruno
had literally come up with a new twist on the old art of memory. Drawing
inspiration from the palindromically named 13th century Catalan
philosopher and mystic Ramon Lulull, Bruno invented a device that would
allow him turn any word into a unique image.
a hundred treatises on mnemonics were published in the nineteenth
century, with titles like ‘American Mnemotechny’ and ‘how to remember’.
They bear a conspicuous resemblance to the memory improvement books that
can be found in the self-help aisle at bookstores today. The most
popular of these 19th century mnemonic books was written by Professor
Alphonse Loisette, an American ‘memory doctor’ who despite his prolific
remembering, ‘had somehow forgotten that he was born Marcus Dwight
Larrowe and that he had no degree’ as one article notes. The fact that I
was able to find 136 used copies of Lisette's 1886 book Physiological
Memory:The instantaneous Art of Never Forgetting’ selling for as little
as $1.25 on the internet is evidence of its once immense popularity.
1966, the same year that Frances Yates published ‘The Art of Memory’
the first major modern academic work to delve into the rich history of
mnemonics, Tony Buzan returned to London to become the editor of
Intelligence, the international journal of Mensa, the high-IQ society.
In 1973, the BBC caught wind of Buzan’s work on Mind mapping and
mnemonics and brought him in for a meeting with the network’s head of
education. The ten-program BBC series and accompanying book came out of
that meeting, both of which were titled ‘Use Your Head’, helped turn
Buzan into a minor British celebrity and made him realize that there was
enormous commercial potential in the memory technique he was promoting.
He published 120 titles on memory related topic.