November 17, 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The art and science of remembering everything.
[A USA memory champion’s path to the title]

The 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 First the contestants had to learn by heart a 50-line unpublished poem called ‘The Tapestry of Me:.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.

All 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.

The 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.

The 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).

Simonides 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.

Visually 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.

Memory 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.

The 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.

‘When 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”.

Even 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.

Ed 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.

Unlike 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).

The 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.

The 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”.

In 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 nothing”

In 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.

Even 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.

Over 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.

In 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.

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