Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up post to Cooking With Medusa: Musings on Memory, Gender & Visualization.
I have the worst memory. My knowledge of names and faces is pretty much non-existent. This made teaching middle school particularly challenging, but I compensated by taking Polaroid photos of my students and engaging in some rote memorization. (I also had some great software which allowed me to make seating charts with photos. Thank God for technology.) I wrote briefly in my last post about having to report on an event where I had to memorize the names and faces of sixteen competitors. I made flash cards. I still failed. When I went to hear author Joshua Foer speak in New York, along with Newsweek writer Rob Verger, I actually confused the two–even though I’d seen this weird photo montage Josh had on his website, and I’d even shown my brother a video of his appearance on The Colbert Report the night before.
So when I began reading Foer’s book, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I was more than a little skeptical. Not because the techniques included in Foer’s book weren’t plausible–they clearly worked for him, as he became the U.S. Memory Champion by accident–but because I wasn’t certain they would work for me.
Moonwalking With Einstein is far from a how-to guide on memorization techniques. Instead, Foer weaves a fascinating account of the names and faces (no pun intended) of those with astounding abilities and those sorely lacking in memorization (including an amnesiac who can’t remember that he can’t remember). He describes ancient memorization techniques, and provides a glimpse into his own participatory journey into this eccentric world.
Foer’s storytelling ability is incredibly engaging, and covers far more ground than just memorization tactics. He delves into the education system, the dangers of externalized sources of memory, and people who are wired just a little bit different–including memorization gurus, people with exceptional skills, and those with so-called disorders like synesthesia (which I totally wish I had, by the way).
The material presented is thought-provoking and stimulating, but I also found it challenging to relate to. First of all, the guy’s a Yale graduate, and clearly brilliant–perhaps not the ideal person to convince me that “anyone” can learn to memorize the order of a deck of playing cards, a series of random words or numbers, or even names and faces. Second, almost every character in the book is male. To be fair, a disproportionate number of memory champions are men, and Foer has stated that women who do win memory championships often quit competing. Instead they tend to do something sensible, like going to grad school or getting a job or pursuing another activity. Foer chose to focus on the men in his book because they are repeat offenders, and perhaps offered the more interesting narrative.
Still, I wondered whether visualization would be as easy, on the whole, for women as it is for men. Foer often talks about creating some very saucy mnemonic images, and I’ve always heard that men are far more visual than women as an excuse for the astronomical sale of pornography. And although I’ve never been officially diagnosed with prosopagnosia (a.k.a. face blindness) and can recognize those close to me (unlike a friend with the disorder, who has photos of his kids on his desktop to remember what they look like), I do occasionally have trouble differentiating between similar looking characters in movies. I wasn’t sure the technique Foer delves into, which relies on visualization, would actually work for me.
My other misgiving was about coming up with creative visualizations to remember names of people I met. While I have no problem with anybody visualizing anything they want to in their spare time (and it’s none of my business anyway), I do wonder whether using mnemonic images could create weird vibes. For example, say I meet someone else with my exact name, Yael Grauer. Most people can’t properly pronounce either my first or last name, instead referring to me as “Yell Growler.” If someone visualizes me yelling and growling in order to remember my name, are they going to treat me any differently with that association of me in their mind? What if they respond to their association of me rather than me as a person? I prefer to think I’m rather pleasant. And what if people in Minnesota, who can actually pronounce my name because it sounds like Joe Mauer, somehow start associating me with baseball? I hate baseball. I can see where this is going. And although I’d feel pleased if people remembered by name, I hope I never find out if they visualized me yelling, growling OR playing baseball in order to get there. Could using these types of mnemonic devices have any negative cognitive consequences? (At least he didn’t recommend using someone’s name in a sentence fifteen times in a row. Most of those people are slimy marketers, and I want to slap them. Look at me yelling and growling.)
Anyway, I decided to ignore this possibility, and to simply come up with images that I felt okay with. The technique, called the ‘memory palace’ or ‘method of loci,’ involves creating images along various areas in a building you know well, such as your childhood home. Each image represents something you wish to remember: a topic in a sermon, an item on a grocery list, or anything else you wish to memorize. The method of loci is described in various ancient Roman rhetorical treatises, such as Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and the Rhetorica ad Herennium. You simply associate each item you want to remember with an image of an object along the mental walk. Making the images stinky, enormous, raunchy or bizarre improves your ability to memorize them.
I decided to test this technique out the day after I heard Foer speak. I was visiting Marcelo Garcia’s Academy, and knew I wanted to review the gym in a blog post… so I decided to create images in my mind’s eye for each of the things that stood out to me while I was visiting. Despite my inability to remember faces and desire to keep this exercise G-rated, I managed to come up with three images that are still in my head. First, the building I was in got visibly taller. It was pretty cool how that happened, like an elevator to the sky. Next, hundreds of eyeballs appeared on the walls. Finally, the building filled with smoke.
I didn’t even try to come up with images to memorize the techniques presented. It is hard enough, in a new academy, to follow along at all. I wasn’t convinced that trying to transpose additional images wouldn’t create confusion.
When I had a chance to sit down and compose my blog post, I was pleased to realize that I remembered the three images well. However, I’d totally forgotten what they meant. I knew the eyeballs represented the watchful eyes of the many assistant instructors at the Academy, which is always helpful. But what was the building becoming taller? Eventually I remembered that this was the way I remembered the expansive technique. And finally, the smoke. What could smoke mean? I knew I’d wanted to write about the positive vibe in the gym, and remembered not knowing how to create an image for ‘vibe.’ So I changed the word to atmosphere, and decided to use smoke to symbolize that. Although I’m convinced that Foer is a genius (and I’m certainly not), and that I had the added disadvantage of both my limitation in this area and my self-imposed handicap of keeping my images pure, the technique still worked for me.
So if you thought of reading the book, but were hesitant because it’s all about dudes and these techniques couldn’t possibly work for you, I’d urge you to pick up a copy. Your memory and visualization skills (or lack thereof) can’t possibly be worse than mine, and so you may pick up a trick or two without having to suffer through one of those vomit-inducing self-help books on memory. (Yes, visualizing vomit is okay in my book. What?! Even babies vomit!)
I want to write more about Foer’s thoughts on deliberate practice and overcoming plateaus, and on the curious amount of athletes who participate in these memory competitions, but I’m hoping to get an interview with him for the Performance Menu, as I’m sure his analysis would trump my speculation if I do manage to set this up. The only problem is that he changed his website, and I swear there was info on there on who his publicist was, but it’s mysteriously disappeared…and I can’t remember. Oh, the irony.
In the meantime, check out his website for videos, articles, and more. And if you’ve read the book (or even if you haven’t read it), feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment.