Cooking With Medusa: Musings on Memory, Gender & Visualization

Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series of 31 monthly post for the  2012 WordCount Blogathon challenge. I’ll be blogging daily for the month of May. 

The first time I’d heard of Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, was when I was heard an NPR interview with him on February 2011. I actually just looked up the date, because I didn’t remember it, but I’m trying really hard to write this post without the pacifier of external sources of memory. You see, I rely on notes because I don’t trust myself. I take many measures to assure my own writing withstands scrutiny, at least as far as verification is concerned.

Anyway, I think I was writing about Joshua Foer. He’s a very compelling science writer who is not best known for winning the USA Memory Championship, but for writing a book about it which people actually found interesting…even though he was writing about memorizing random words and the order of a deck of cards.

Foer’s interviews are riveting, as was his book talk at Jackson McNally (with Newsweek writer Rob Verger). I never knew that memorization techniques were so ancient, or that even the former Archbishop of Canterbury memorized his sermons using a process of imagining key points he’d discuss in separate rooms of a building, in order. As Foer pointed out, the terms “in the first place” and “in the second place” actually make (figurative) sense

Foer’s book is compelling to me because it’s a narrative, and less prescriptive than being told to imagine a word that will remind me of someone’s name and associate it with an object–though that is one of the techniques described. But hearing about other people doing this is far less annoying than more prescriptive writing on the topic, which always makes me feel guilty for embarrassing errors due to my own poor memory. I confuse people with others because I forget what they look like. I get lost at an alarming rate. And every once in a while, people think I’m completely stupid because I confuse someone with another, or create awkward situations due to a lapse in memory.

One of the interesting topics in the talk was about the value of memorization in general. In the field of education, it is thought of as the lowest rung on the ladder of knowledge. Bloom’s Taxonomy lists simple recall as the lowest form of learning. In my past life as a middle school teacher, I remember being asked to look at my elaborately complicated lesson plan worksheets and to give a number for each stated-determined learning objective. Memorization was a 1, whereas a more complex activities such as evaluation was a 6. My small group of teachers was not happy when I correctly identified certain lessons as 1s or 2s. They instead preferred to pretend everything we were doing was a 5 or 6. But knowing the capital of a state, for example, or the difference between a simile and a metaphor, or correctly identifying a sonnet vs. a haiku… this takes memorization! The theory was that analyzing or evaluating a poem or historical event, as two examples, would automatically include lower forms of learning, such as recall.

I can assure you that this is not the case. I was offered an assignment to cover a sporting event where I would have to interview tournament semi-finalists. I was unfamiliar with all but one. I spent the next two days memorizing names and faces. I made flash cards. I took extensive notes. And I reviewed any footage or interviews I could find. Then, when the time came, I forgot some names–including a key first name. This isn’t uncommon for journalists, some of who rely on cues from photographers. I can say with a straight face, though, that I very much remembered many key details of the athlete whose first name I plum forgot.  So maybe there is something to rote memorization.

And perhaps in some circumstances, analysis is beyond the ability level of specific folks. I like to think I’m extremely intelligent (and very smartly dressed), but I have a spatial awareness issue. Memorizing directions, I can do. Memorizing number of subway stops to my destination I can do. Memorizing an entire map is beyond my ability level, or would at least take a lot of unnecessary time. I’d rather spend 20 minutes memorizing something simple I know I can get than spending the same amount of time failing at something more difficult.

And I’m not convinced there’s some overarching 6th level skill that will lead to understanding of items I choose not to memorize. My BJJ coach is always telling me to understand concepts instead of memorizing techniques. It’s legitimate. But if I think I understand a concept but can’t remember the technique, what good is it? And which concept will automatically assure my knowledge and understanding of each technique? I’m thinking other people are better at this than I am.

And perhaps it is because I have trouble with visualization. I am a very non-visual person. During his Q+A session, Foer admitted to picking his book title, Moonwalking with Einstein, because if anybody visualized it they would remember it forever. It was then that I realized I hadn’t visualized it. I remembered the words and thought they sounded cool, but hadn’t formed an actual image in my mind. (Did you form an image after reading my title?) I wonder sometimes whether this has to do with gender on any level; marketers sometimes say that men’s porn sells better than women’s porn because men are more visual. But there are female memory champions as well, so perhaps I shouldn’t overgeneralize. (If you read the title of this post, I’m dying to know if you visualized cooking with Medusa. I did–but perhaps it’s because the images are ones I can relate to more? Anyway, feel free to tell me in the comments.)

Foer also discussed about paying attention and being truly present to aid in memory. I can totally see this. There have been times when I’ve done live play-by-play of events and had to look at my notes afterwards to remember what happened. Fighter Ronda Rousey says she doesn’t remember her fights until she watches the video because she’s on her play setting and not her record setting. Well, being on my record setting makes me forget what happened until I look at what I record. This has led to some awkward moments of being asked to score rounds and having to quickly look at my note because I forgot who did what. It’s led to me confusing editors with writers at panels because I was busy live tweeting. It’s embarrassing. Perhaps giving some of the techniques in this book I haven’t finished reading would help me become more present–or being more present would help with the techniques.

And that’s something I really hope to do. At first, I thought that many of the events I deal with are not ones I’d want to be more present within or remember well, lest I succumb to depression due to the life of a writer: lonely days, past due invoices, and suffering from at least the perception of poverty and mediocrity. But there’s also richness in those moments of sadness and despair, and perhaps it’s better to truly experience them instead of trying to numb oneself to them… assuming, of course, that this doesn’t lead to chocolate binges or alcoholism. I do find that I often want to be present when drunk, though–feeling the different sensations which arise.

I think what may separate Foer’s book from ones offering techniques for more effective memorization is that he seems to actually have legitimate, non-manipulative reasons for wanting to improve memory. Being truly present in the moment is a beautiful ideal, one which many religions/cults/etc. have been built around. In my case, I don’t want to remember things about people so they’ll think I care. I want to remember things about people so that they’ll know I care. Otherwise, it falls flat. Otherwise, I become my parents, who offer well wishes out of context. They wish me success in all I do instead of wishing me success in pitching an article to the big-name editor I just told them I met with. It makes me wonder whether they had a bad Skype connection or couldn’t be bothered to care.

And this is why I’ve downloaded iPhone apps such as BrainChallenge, where I play games that help me attempt to recall where I last saw disappearing ninjas, names and faces, the order of letters, and so forth. But my memory skills are way higher than my visual skills, so perhaps I just need to pay better attention.

Anyway, I’ll be checking back in during the Blogathon with a bonafide book review, and perhaps any progress I’ve made attempting to improve my memory. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on any part of this post, or developing memory in general.

I want to get posts like this delivered to my inbox.

Speak Your Mind