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Most people can remember an average of seven things at one time. But for a small group of mental athletes who compete in memory championships, the figure is much higher. They can remember hundreds of random words or the order of a deck of playing cards. Some even remember tens of thousands of digits of pi. In his new book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” journalist and author Joshua Foer investigates how memory works and how it can be improved. Along the way, he goes from being a slightly forgetful journalist to becoming a national memory champ. And he learns why the disappearing art of remembering is such a worthy skill.
- Joshua Foer Writer for "National Geographic," "Esquire," "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and "Slate."
Author Extra: Joshua Foer Answers Audience Questions
Q: Can your guest please comment on the memory requirements for London cab drivers? How do they successfully pass what I understand is the most challenging memory test for employment out there? – From Parvinder in Arlington
A: In order to be certified as a London cabbie, you have to pass a daunting test called “the Knowledge,” which involves memorizing the locations and traffic patterns of all 25,000 streets in London, which is an incredibly confusing city. For cabbies-in-training the training is a matter of sheer repetition. They will spend two to four years driving all over the streets of London memorizing street names and landmarks. In 2000, a neuroscientist at University College London named Eleanor Maguire wanted to find out what effect, if any, all that driving around the labyrinthine streets of London might have on the cabbies’ brains. When she brought sixteen taxi drivers into her lab and examined their brains in an MRI scanner, she found one surprising and important difference. The right posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be involved in spatial navigation, was 7 percent larger than normal in the cabbies—a small but very significant difference. Maguire concluded that all of that way-finding around London had physically altered the gross structure of their brains. The more years a cabbie had been on the road, the more pronounced the effect.
Q: What is one or some of the historical pieces of architecture that is considered a “good” memory palace? – From Sarah in Orlando
A: Medieval memory treatises go into some depth on this subject. One type of building they advise makes for a terrible memory palace is churches. All those naves and rows of pews are repetitive and unmemorable. And most churches look alike. The best buildings to turn into memory palaces are those that are architecturally distinct, and have lots of nooks to nip that you can dip into in your mind’s eye and deposit images.
Q: My almost two-year old son has an amazing memory for his age. He has memorized nursery rhymes, songs, and parts of stories. He asks me to repeat things over and over and (although I sometimes feel like a juke box) and I’m happy to oblige. He will also talk about something that happened on a visit to a friend’s house, or a child he met a playground, days and even weeks after it happened. I thought that our brains weren’t capable of remembering things before the age of 3. How early does memory start? Will my child remember “Gus run with Kyla in park. Park muddy.” or “Gus sit Stacey’s lap at Jack’s house” years from now? – From Kathy in Arlington
A: Infantile amneisa is a fascinating phenomenon that I write about in Moonwalking with Einstein. Most of us don’t remember anything before the age of about three or four. And yet, as you point out, it’s not as if a three-year-old doesn’t remember anything. In fact, he may remember a lot. But those memories are likely to be forgotten as an adult. Freud thought that infantile amnesia was a result of the grown-up mind repressing the hyper-sexualized fantasies of toddlerhood. I’m not sure you’d find anyone who agrees with that hypothesis these days. In fact, it seems to be the case that regions of the brain crucial to memory are not fully formed until about the fourth year.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Memory is a tricky thing. You may not remember what you had for lunch yesterday, but you might remember the phone number of a childhood friend. And memory can fail you as when someone's name is on the tip of your tongue. But what if you could train your memory? You could recall not only what you recently ate, but also the name of every British monarch or every item on your shopping list.
MS. DIANE REHMJournalist Joshua Foer set out to do just that and he did so well that he won the 2006 U.S. Championship of Memory. He writes about the experience, what he's learned about memory in his brand-new book. It's titled, "Moonwalking with Einstein." He's here in the studio with me. You can jog his memory about all sorts of things, maybe he'll even be able to help you with yours. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Joshua, it's good to have you here.
MR. JOSHUA FOERIt is such a thrill to be here. I grew up in Washington listening to your show, listening to Kojo, the whole crew here and it's really a great pleasure for me to be here.
REHMThank you. I'm so glad to have you here. You start out this book with a memory that you called average. How so?
FOERWell, I should actually probably explain, just give you a little bit of back story of why I was even interested in memory. I had gone to this very strange contest called The U.S. Memory Championship to cover it as a science journalist.
REHMWho were you writing for at that time?
FOERThis was to write a short little piece for Slate magazine.
FOERI had no idea what I was in for. I think -- I guess, I assumed it was going to be like the Super Bowl of savants or something, that it was going to be these people with photographic memories, these freaks of nature. And I showed up and I found something different, which was that the people who were competing all claimed they had average memories and that they had trained themselves to perform these rather remarkable gymnastic feats of memory, which by the way, included memorizing hundreds of random numbers and shuffled decks of playing cards, all sorts of stuff that really blew my mind. And they said to me, you know, we could actually teach you how to do this 'cause anybody can do it and I didn't really believe them.
REHMBecause how did you rate your own memory?
FOERBecause my -- I thought I had sort of just an average memory like everybody else and I...
FOER...actually went and had my memory tested just to sort of establish what my baseline was before I got involved in this whole thing. And indeed, I had just an average memory. And that's how this whole story started. I got kind of interested in it and ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but trying to understand it, how it works, why it sometimes doesn't.
REHMHow many people were involved in this so called memory contest?
FOERAt the U.S. level, there were about three dozen competitors, but there are contests all over the world. There is a memory circuit contest in about a dozen countries.
REHMLike chess or anything?
FOERLike chess, like any sport and they call themselves by the way, mental athletes. And the circuit culminates every summer in the World Memory Championships, which are held in a different place around the world. I think this year they'll be in Shanghai.
REHMAnd then how many people show up at the world championships?
FOERIt depends on just how inaccessible a place it is, but when I competed, it was also somewhat in the neighborhood of three to four dozen.
REHMI want to know what it was you started with in terms of how to improve your memory.
FOERIt turns out that there are a set of techniques which I had never heard of before I got interested in this that were supposedly invented in ancient Greece by the poet Simonides in the 5th century B.C. And the story goes like this, the story was reported by Cicero.
FOERSimonides was sitting in a banquet hall. He had stood up to deliver an ode and the moment that he was sort of leaving the hall, the ceiling collapses and kills everybody inside. It not only kills everybody, but mangles the bodies beyond all recognition so that nobody can tell who was where. They can't recover the bodies to bury them properly.
REHMBut he's outside?
FOERHe had just exited.
FOERAnd he closes his eyes and he has a realization which is that he can see in his mind's eye where each of the guests at the banquet were sitting. And from this realization supposedly springs an invention called the memory palace and the idea is that while we might be terrible at remembering say our phone number or somebody else's phone number or where we put the keys, we have very well-developed spatial memory. And if you can use your spatial memory to remember something else, it can become more memorable. And that's how Cicero memorized his speeches. That's how medieval scholars memorized entire books.
REHMSo how did you begin?
FOERI began skeptical and met a fellow named Ed Cook who had one of the best trained memories in England. And he was at this contest as sort of spring training for the World Memory Championships, just to get in shape. And he was outside smoking a cigarette and I started talking with him and he said to me, oh, you're a journalist, do you know Brittany Spears? And I said, no, I'm sorry, I don't know Brittany Spears.
FOERHe said, you know, because I really want to teach Brittany Spears how to memorize a deck of playing cards on U.S. television. It will prove to the world that anybody can do this. And I said, ouch. You know, I'm not Brittany Spears, but maybe you could teach me. I mean, you've got to start somewhere, right?
FOERAnd a couple of days later, we met again in Central Park and he gave me a long, really crazy list of imaginary shopping items, I guess, and said, I'm going to show you how to commit this to memory. And we built a memory palace out of my old childhood home in Washington, D.C. and lo and behold, it worked. I remembered this long list of crazy items. And he said to me, you know, this is just a demonstration. You could actually memorize, you know, "Heidegger's Being and Time," with the same techniques. I was like, wow, okay.
FOERAnd that's kind of how I got hooked.
REHMHow high on the world's list of memory champs is Ed Cook?
FOERAt the time, I think Ed was ranked 11th in the world. I should explain that Americans on the competitive memory circuit are sort of like Jamaican bobsledders on the competitive bobsledding circuit. I think we have the most style, but we're laughably behind the curve in terms of technique and training. We're actually catching up. I was at the U.S. Memory Championship this past weekend as an observer again.
REHMWhere was it?
FOERIt is in Manhattan.
FOERAnd it was won by a guy named Nelson Dellis, who absolutely tore it up. I mean, just set all sorts of new records and I think this might be the year that the United States finally emerges as a mnemonic superpower on the world stage.
REHMSpell mnemonic for our...
FOERWith an m, M-N-E, yes.
REHMRight, exactly, now the question is when you're in a spelling bee, you know, they give you all these fancy words and the kids struggle through them. They become more and more difficult. Does the list become longer at these memory championships?
FOERMaybe I should give you a picture of what the events are at a memory contest.
FOERAt the international level, a memory contest is described as a mental decathlon because there are ten events and I just love how all the sporting analogies work their way...
FOER...into this. One of the events is memorizing a poem, one of the events is how many random numbers can you memorize in five minutes, one of the events is to memorize a shuffled deck of playing cards. One of my favorite events is actually only at the U.S. championships involves five strangers, getting up on stage and just reeling off all of this biographical information. My name is such and such, these are my pets' names, this is my phone number, this is the make and model of car I drive. And you have to remember as much of that as possible and that's really hard, but that's a test that's kind of true to life.
REHMBecause it is somebody that you don’t know.
FOEROh, yeah, sure.
FOERIt's a total stranger and then five of them.
REHMFive of them and you became U.S. champion?
FOERThis was not supposed to happen, but yes.
REHMI should say.
FOERI mean, I had come after -- a year after covering this contest as a journalist. I had come back to compete thinking it would be kind of an interesting experiment in participatory journalism. I had gotten in the meantime rather obsessed with this idea of training my memory and seeing, you know, how far I could push it and I came back to compete not really expecting to win, but that's what happened. And then having won, I was in the very, very weird position of being the official representative of the United States of America with 300 million people's hopes and dreams behind me to the World Memory Championship, which was held in London that year. And I went and I competed as the official American and I came...
REHMAnd you came in?
FOERWell, I took it very seriously. I thought this was a great responsibility and I had a team U.S.A. t-shirt and I had earmuffs painted with the American flag.
REHMBecause you don't want to hear anything while you're concentrating?
FOERIt's all about concentration at the highest level and so everybody wears earmuffs, usually with earplugs underneath because you can never be deaf enough. And the top guys, it's almost exclusively the Germans and there's something about this that just appeals to the Teutonic temperament. I don't know what it is, wear blinders. Some of them actually compete wearing horse blinders and I had a pair of blinders made up for myself.
REHMJoshua Foer, his book about, "The Art and Science of Remembering Everything," is titled, "Moonwalking with Einstein," fascinating stuff. After a short break, we'll be right back and talk more, take your calls, stay with us.
REHMAnd if you can't remember what you had for lunch or dinner yesterday, you might want to take a few tips from Joshua Foer. His new book titled, "Moonwalking with Einstein," is all about, "The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." Here's an e-mail. It says -- it's from Chad in Ann Arbor who says, "Josh, great book. So now thanks to your book example, I now have a jar of pickled garlic thoroughly locked and remembered in my mind. But how do I get rid of it?"
FOERWell, first of all, I hope he can explain to me what pickled garlic is because it appears in my book...
FOER...and I actually have no clue what pickled garlic is, but it sounds rather disgusting.
REHMIt's something you started with.
FOERRight. When I was originally with Ed Cook in Central Park and he gave me this list of crazy items to remember, pickled garlic, which I think is some sort of a British delicacy, was one of the items he asked me to remember. And so I put that image in my memory palace and put it in the book and now people are coming up to me and saying, I remember the pickled garlic.
REHMWell, what is it?
FOERWell, pickled garlic was one of the items I was supposed to remember...
FOER...but what is it? Good question.
REHMNow, you got a question that appeared on Facebook.
FOERYeah, this is an interesting question from John Morgan. He asks, "I have an entrance exam coming at the end of March for the fire department in my city. Some of the questions on the exam will be based on an image of a residential apartment floor plan. You're given five minutes to study the material and then are later tested upon what you can recall. In the past, I haven't scored highly in these areas. What are some methods, techniques to boost my scores?" And I'm thinking about this and I actually -- I don't know. I don't have a great solution for you. I mean, the funny thing is the way these memory techniques work for these contests, it's actually all about the fact that we're naturally very good at remembering the kinds of things that John Morgan is having trouble with, which is the layout of rooms.
FOERI mean, if you were to come over to my house, Diane, and walk around for two minutes, you'd walk out of my house remembering where the fridge was...
FOER...where the bathroom was, the sofa. That's actually a lot of information, if you think about it.
FOERAnd I bet you if you were to come back several months later, you would still have those memories of where the sofa was, the fridge, the bathroom. It's just something...
REHMI can still remember the layout of my childhood home.
FOERWe gobble up special information and that is the essence of why a technique like the memory palace works. What you're doing essentially -- and this was Simonides' great revelation 2500 years ago according to legend -- was if you could just transform, say, the sofa, the refrigerator and the bathroom into images of things that you actually care to remember, that they will then be stickier.
REHMOkay. But there are a lot of people who say, we don't need to memorize anything anymore. We've got the computer. All we need to do is go to the computer and look it up.
FOERIt's an old, old argument, actually. Twenty-five hundred years ago -- actually around the same time that Simonides was supposedly inventing the memory palace, Socrates was up in arms over a new invention called writing. And he felt that, you know, people are going to start putting their memories down on paper and they're going to become forgetful and they're going to depend on things that are written down and they're going to become like empty vessels. And the whole culture is headed down a very slippery slope and it's not going to end well. Course, ironically, we wouldn't know about this if somebody hadn't written it down, (laugh) but still the point holds.
FOERAnd I think we would today say that he was overstating the case. But over the last 2500 years, we've invented a whole set of technologies starting with the alphabet, but ending with the Blackberry and I'm sure whatever Apple has coming next, which I don't even want to think about, but I'm sure I want it (laugh) that have allowed us to outsource remembering, technology that holds memories for us. And it's changed -- it's changed us. It's changed our culture and it's changed how we think about remembering.
REHMBut you know, if I hadn't had a seventh or eighth grade math teacher who taught me aliquot parts so that I could immediately remember tables and how quickly to get there, my mind wouldn't work as quickly.
REHMIt would take a lot longer to get to a computer if I didn't know it offhand.
FOERWell, I mean, it's awfully convenient to have our calendars and our phone numbers...
FOER...and all this stuff right at hand on our handhelds and to have the answer to every question on Google just a few clicks away. But ultimately, our memories are what make us who we are and they shape how we move through the world, they shape the decisions we make. We talk about our memories as though it were some sort of a vault that we drop information into and we pull information out of. But that's not a very good metaphor because our memories are always there and they're always shaping how we move through the world. So there are some things we really don't want to outsource to technology.
REHMTell me how you proceeded from that first conversation with Ed Cook about establishing your memory palace, what you went on to do from there.
FOEROne of the things that I did, and this ended up proving to be kind of a secret weapon in my training, was there's a whole field of psychology that's devoted to understanding how people get to be really good at what they do, how people become experts. And I just dove into this literature and I talked with a lot of scientists who study experts. It turns out there are some sort of generalizable techniques that I tried to apply from their research to my memory training. They encouraged me to think of it less like stretching my height or extending my arms or changing some sort of basic biological function to more like training an instrument. And that's how I approached this memory training for these contests.
FOERAnd a lot of it was about pushing myself beyond the point that I felt was comfortable and watching myself fail and then figuring out why I was failing and seeing -- really keeping a lot of data and analyzing it and going about this as a scientist. Just, you know, making hypotheses about what was working and what wasn't working and then trying to make myself better at it.
REHMHow smart would you say you are?
FOERYou'd get a different answer from my mother, I'm sure (laugh).
REHMYeah, but how smart would you say you are?
FOERI think this -- going about it in this way was the thing that gave me an advantage. I had one other major advantage when I entered this competition, because people ask me, how did you do it? In one year, you went from not...
FOERIt must not be a very impressive competition. The other secret weapon I had was this coach Ed Cook because he was from Europe. And I should explain that every year, somebody comes up with a new technique for remembering more stuff more quickly in this bizarre subculture of competitive memorizers. It's almost always somebody in Europe. And Ed taught me how they memorize decks of playing cards.
REHMThat's what I want to know.
FOERWell, he taught me how they do it in England, which was -- at the time, nobody in America was using these techniques, so it was like -- a little bit like bringing a knife to a gunfight at the (laugh) U.S. Championships. I had this super developed technology for remembering that none of the other Americans had. Now all of the Americans do it this way. And I think when this year's world championship comes around America will probably do pretty well.
REHMAll right. Now, explain to me how you go about memorizing a deck of cards that's shuffled.
FOEROkay. We're about to geek out, Diane.
REHMOkay. Geek out. Go ahead
FOERI hope you're prepared.
FOERAll right. The technique that I was using is called PAO, Person Action Object, and it works like this. Every card in the deck of 52 is associated with an image of a person performing an action on an object. And this you have to pre-memorize. So there's -- it takes some remembering to be able to remember. For example, maybe the king of diamonds -- in fact, the kind of diamonds in my deck of cards was Bill Clinton smoking a cigar. The king of hearts was Michael Jackson moonwalking with a diamond studded white glove and the king of clubs was John Goodman eating a hamburger. So we have that basic information.
FOERWhen we get a deck of cards, any three cards in order are recombined. I told you this was going to get a little bit esoteric. If we saw say the king of diamonds followed by the king of hearts followed by the king of clubs that would translate in my mind's eye into an image of Bill Clinton moonwalking with a hamburger. And that's such a strange image that it would be almost unforgettable and that's the essence of the art. It's coming up with these images very, very quickly and seeing them in such detail that they are just unforgettable.
REHMBut there are 52 cards in a deck of cards.
REHMSo are you separating it three by three by three?
FOERYeah, and those images are then being deposited in a memory palace. So everybody who competes has dozens of memory palaces.
FOERThey are collectors of architecture. They walk around -- they go into a building and they look around and they say, would this building make a good memory palace? Is it memorable? And there's -- they've got advice going all the way back to classical -- the Latin -- memory treatises about what kind of buildings are the most memorable and they assemble these buildings in their mind's eye of veritable metropolis of mental storehouses that they then use to hold their memories in these competitions.
REHMAll right. Let's get to something a little more practical because everybody is faced with the problem of remembering names. How would you, if you had never heard this program before, go about remembering the name Diane Rehm?
FOERI should first start by explaining that there is a paradox in psychology known as the Baker Baker Paradox and it goes like this. If you give two people two words, the same word, the word baker. You tell one person to remember that there is somebody named Baker, capital B, Baker. And you tell somebody else to remember that somebody is a baker, that he bakes bread as his profession. You come back days later and you ask them, do you remember that word that I told you? The person who is told that the guy's name was Baker is less likely to remember the word than the person who was told that his profession is baker. Same word, different amount of remembering. Very curious. Why is it?
FOERWell, the name Baker has no associations for you. It doesn't mean anything, whereas the profession baker, well, that congers up a whole host of associations. You know that the person comes home and he smells good, that he probably wears a white hat. You might even know another baker. And so it's linked in with all of these other memories that you've already got. It's more tightly integrated.
FOERSo the art of remembering somebody's name is turning a capital B, Baker into a lower case b, baker. And that's what they're doing in these contests. One of the events is they'll give you 100 people's first and last names and their headshots and you have to remember as many of their names as possible in 15 minutes. And that was actually one of the events that I was better at than others. I was terrible at the poem, but good at remembering the names and faces.
FOERSo Diane Rehm, we would have to come up with some -- something that would transform Rehm capital R into lower case. Maybe it's a ream of paper. And try and see it as colorfully as possible, somebody fanning you with a ream of paper.
REHMOr a reamer.
FOERWell, that would work, too.
REHMA reamer. Take a squash...
REHM...and you want to take out the center.
FOERThat -- Okay. Well, that would work, too.
FOERAnd to see it as colorfully and strangely as possible and just create that association in my mind's eyes between your face and the ream of paper or the reamer or whatever it is.
FOERAnd Diane, maybe -- maybe -- well, I mean, Princess Diana. Maybe I see you, you know, arm-in-arm with her, and I just kinda take a little mental picture of that.
FOERAnd then next time I see you, those associations will come back to me.
REHMJoshua Foer, his new book is titled, "Moonwalking with Einstein." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got so many callers, Joshua, I'm going to open the phones. Let's go first to Adam who's in Cape Cod, Mass. Adam, did Joshua already answer your question?
ADAMI don't know, actually. I was off for just a moment and my suggestion was to the gentleman who is trying to learn the floor plan for the entrance exam for the fire department was to make it a walkthrough himself. Instead of just looking at the plan, to imagine walking through the home following the plan and then maybe it would be committed to memory more easily.
FOERI wish I had thought of that suggestion myself. It's a great idea.
REHMI think it's a great idea, too. Adam, thanks for calling.
ADAMThank you. Bye-bye.
REHMLet's go now to Steve who's driving through New Mexico. But Steve, can you pull over?
STEVEHello. Yeah, I was just curious how long you remember stuff? Like all the different contests you have, do you remember all the decks of cards, do you remember the last one or is there some stuff that stays with you longer than other stuff?
FOERSo here's the really funny thing about a memory contest. You need to have all of these memory palaces at your disposal, but you've only got a limited number of them. So after each contest, you actually want to forget what you've just remembered because, well, it doesn't do you any real good to be walking around with all these decks of playing cards in your head. So contestants will actually purposefully go through their memory palaces in their mind's eye and they've got techniques for erasing them. It's kind of beautiful. They scrub the walls and try and forget the things that they remembered because the last thing you want to have happen is to have something you remembered two contests ago or in your training popping up.
REHMYou know, as soon -- it's interesting that you say that because probably within a half hour after I've gotten off the air, I've forgotten what the subject was...
REHM...that morning because I'm already moving on to the next.
FOERYeah, and everything we learn naturally starts falling from our grasp the second after we learn it. There's a curve, the curve of forgetting and eventually, overtime, things fade and we forget them.
REHMOn the other hand, there is an accumulation of facts of knowledge, of understanding that builds.
FOERAnd it's some sort of a process that you just can't put your finger on. How does it work when you read a book and you forget it? There are books up on my shelf that I can't even remember whether I read or not. And yet I know that they've influenced me and shaped me and helped make me the person I am, but I can't quite put my finger on how.
REHMYou actually became a research subject while you were in training.
FOERThat's right. So I went down to Florida State University and had my own memory tested and prodded and probed all for the service of science, but really to find out what might happen in the course of this training. And I went back afterwards after winning the United States memory championship to have my memory retested.
REHMAnd what'd they say?
FOERWell, there's one very classic test of working memory capacity, it's called the digit span test.
REHMAll right. Hold it...
REHM...until after we come back. Joshua Foer, "Moonwalking with Einstein." Absolutely fascinating.
REHMAnd before we go back to the phones, let me read an e-mail from Bryan in Concord, N.H. He says, "I have a large jar of pickled garlic in my icebox. It's finely minced garlic, far more pungent and flavorful than the powdered stuff. I add this to things like my homemade spaghetti sauce. It's great and should be in everyone's kitchen." Now we'll...
FOER(laugh) Well, I am thrilled to be coming away from this interview with some real practical knowledge.
REHMThere you go. There you go. Okay. Let's go to Boynton Beach, Fla. Good morning, Wallace, you're on the air.
WALLACEGood morning. I'm calling about pneumonics. I learned a good one when I was in college. I learned a good one when I was in college. A professor taught us in one of our English courses, Religious Trends and English Poetry. But there were always these references to the seven deadly sins and he taught us how to remember all seven deadly sins.
FOERWell, let's hear it (laugh).
WALLACEOkay. PEWSAGL, P-E-W-S-A-G-L. Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust.
FOEROkay. I will try and avoid all of those.
REHMThat's terrific. Thanks for calling, Wallace. Now to Rob who's here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
ROBGood morning. I'm about halfway through your book, Josh, and I was hoping that you could address -- you raised it a little bit in the beginning, I don't know if you talked about it more at the end of the book, but how memory and memories skills have gotten a bad rap in current education. And my personal feeling is good memory also teaches you how to think, but you can beat that out of children by just bad teaching, rote techniques, so if you could address that.
FOERSure. I mean, you know, one of the wonderful things about the last century of education reform is that we've changed what happens in schools and we've made school a lot more fun, hopefully. And we've put a greater emphasis on creating abstract thinkers and creative thinkers and people who can really analyze the world. One of the things that has fallen by the wayside a little bit is memory, which is sort of a bad word in education, in my own education. I can't even think of -- I think I learned the, "I Have a Dream," speech and that was just about it. But, you know, everything in education's a pendulum...
FOER...it swings back and forth. Things that are out of fashion come back into fashion...
REHMBecause I had to memorize tons of things.
FOERSure. And, you know, I think the pendulum has probably swung a little bit too far in that it's important to create citizens who actually know stuff because...
REHMAnd remember things.
FOERYeah, I'll tell you a story. You know, I was in Shanghai not long ago doing a reporting assignment and I never got an ounce of Chinese history in my education. I'm sure it would be different today. And I was walking around, I went to museums and I was trying to make sense of Chinese history and, you know, when the Ching Dynasty was, when the Ming Dynasty was. I had no clue. And it wasn't just that I didn't know these things, it was that I was finding it difficult to learn them. I didn't have the basic facts to fasten other facts to. And my experience of the place was impoverished because of it. And that points to how important it is that you have some baseline, basic information up there to move through the world as a curious person.
REHMOkay. Now you've got to talk about chicken sexers.
FOERUh-oh (laugh). Well, I bring up chicken sexing, which is a very archain (sp?) skill. I don't know if your listeners know this, but when they're raising chickens for eggs, male chicks are no good, right. They don't lay eggs, you want to get rid of them as soon as possible. And in the 1930s, some scientists discovered that you could actually distinguish between a male and a female chick at a very early age and there are professional chicken sexers who have this unbelievable perceptual ability to determine the difference between male and female chickens when they're just days old. These guys are paid a fortune because it's a very valuable skill and they can't explain how they do it.
FOERIt's -- they just say it's intuition. But of course, it's not intuition. It's a feat of memory and at a certain level, what they've done is through thousands of hours of training, taught themselves how to identify things that you and I couldn't see. And it points to the way in which our memories shape how we perceive the world.
REHMAnd then there's the case of a research subject know as S.
REHMS like Sam, which tells us an awful lot about memory.
FOERS is a very famous individual in the psychological literature. He was a journalist, a Russian journalist, who supposedly remembered almost everything. And he moved through the world rather disfunctionally. He remembered too much. He couldn't distinguish between the things that were worth remembering and the things that weren't worth remembering, the trivial and the important. And he could never really hold down a job. He ended up actually only making a life as a stage performer, basically, just performing memory tricks. And, you know, one of the things that points to is that it's actually not remembering so much as forgetting that's at the essence of what makes us human and what makes us thinkers.
REHMOtherwise, we're just storing facts.
FOERRight. And one of the things that we're doing as we learn is we decide that certain things are going to stick and certain things we don't want to stick and that's an important distinction.
REHMBut on the flipside, you found a man with the worst memory, E.P.
FOERThis was truly an extraordinary individual to spend time with. He had what is probably the worst memory in the world. In 1992, this gentleman, E.P., had his brain attacked by a freakish virus that essentially cored it like an apple. Knocked out his hipocampo regions, which are the part of the brain that transform our perceptions into long-term memories. So he had not only no memories going back to about 1950, he also was unable to form new memories. And you could talk with him for a few minutes before you realized there is something deeply, deeply wrong. He didn't even remember that he had a memory problem.
FOERAnd what I thought was most fascinating about him was that he was perfectly content. He lived in this kind of eternal present and was almost like a pathological Buddha. You know, he was trapped between this past that he couldn't remember and this future that he couldn't contemplate and he was happy.
REHMWas he married?
FOERHe was married. And this is one of the really, truly sad things about this is that without a memory, he couldn't provide even the most basic psychological sustenance, emotional sustenance, to his wife. You know, he couldn't remember anything than more recent than his most recent thought. And his wife was really his caretaker. Unfortunately, he passed away since I met him, but I'm really grateful for the time that I was able to spend with him. He was an extraordinary person.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Cindy in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Cindy.
CINDYGood morning, Diane. It's a pleasure to be on the show.
CINDYI have a brief family story about word association gone awry. My brother was in college and brought his friend home to meet us who was from India. And his friend's name was Jagdipgill (sp?) and he introduced him to my late grandmother and she thought, oh, my goodness, how will I ever remember this name? And she decided she would think of the car Jaguar. So the next time my brother brought Jag home, she says, so, how's it going, Benz?
FOERThat's really funny.
REHMThat's a cute story, Cindy. Thanks for sharing.
CINDYYou're welcome, thank you.
REHMOkay. Let's go to Pittsburgh, Penn. Good morning, Lisa.
LISAGood morning. It's a fascinating concept. I would love some clarification on one of the memory techniques. You refer often to memory palaces and I'm wondering what the link is between picturing -- let's say I picture my dining room. I don't know if every chair represents a random number, if you're memorizing random numbers. Exactly how does the memory palace work?
FOEROkay. Well, we could do a very basic example. One of the events in the U.S. Memory Championship is Random Words and they give you a list of 400 random words and you have to memorize them in order.
FOERFour hundred. Not everybody can do 400. Actually, I think the world record right now is about 300 in 15 minutes. The way you would do this is well, we could imagine we're doing it with your house as the memory palace. Let's say the first word is fox. You would actually picture a fox outside of your front door and you try and picture it as colorfully as possible. The second word is, I don't know, coffee. You would imagine something that would -- an image of coffee inside the front door of your house. Maybe it's a big coffee pot and you would try and smell it and experience it as multi-sensorally as possible and you'd go to the third word and the fourth word like this, putting these images around your house.
FOERWhen it comes time to recall, you'd walk through your house and, believe it or not, you will see those images in the places that you left them. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it does.
REHMHow does it work if you're dealing with a deck of cards? Do you put those cards not only in terms of how you've named them, but do you also put them...
FOERYes, yes. So what the -- for that random -- for the cards event, we discussed how you transform the cards into images.
FOERAnd they're weird images.
REHMAnd then you...
FOERAnd those weird images then go into a memory palace and you're walking through it in order.
REHMAll right. To Christopher in Orlando, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
CHRISTOPHERGood morning. I'm a classical musician and one of the great challenges of doing classical music is memorizing pieces that could be 30 minutes long and trying to construct pathways through them music. One of the techniques we use is called formal analysis, where we break down the piece into all the different phrases and sub-phrases and cadences, little points of punctuation. I was just wondering if there was anything in Mr. Loer's book about music or if he's experienced any musical challenges in the memory competitions or anything like that.
FOERWell, I think actually what you're bringing up is a window into something very interesting, which is that what you're doing as an expert musician is really getting at the underlying structure of the music and figuring out how it fits together and how it works and using that to remember it and that, of course, is true remembering. That's expertise at work and, you know, one of the really interesting things that I learned in this book is people who are experts in their fields almost always have extraordinary memories for the information in their domain.
FOEROne of the really amazing things about people who play Chess is that at a certain point, it becomes absolutely trivial for a Chess Grandmaster to have the board in front of him. He can remember the Chess positions in his head, some can even play 20 games at one time simultaneously in their heads. It's irrelevant having the board there. And there was a famous study that was done of Chess Grandmasters to try and tease apart why their memory for Chess pieces was so good and they gave these Chess Grandmasters boards of Chess pieces where the pieces were put there randomly.
FOERThey hadn't arrived through a game. And what's fascinating is, when given a board with Chess pieces arranged randomly, the Chess Grandmasters had memories that were no better than average because they didn't have meaning. Those boards had no -- they couldn't see them in the light of all of the other boards they've ever played and that's true of just about anything. We only remember things that are meaningful and that we have some understanding of how they fit together.
REHMJoshua Foer, his book is titled, "Moonwalking With Einstein." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's interesting, you write about what so many of us of my generation are experiencing, that is that life seems to speed up as we get older and why is that?
FOERWilliam James, the famous psychologist, first wrote about this at the turn of the 20th Century and what he said was, when we're young, you know, everything we do is new and fresh and we're constantly having new experiences, new things that impress themselves upon our memories. And our experience of time is actually shaped by these memories, but these chronological landmarks. Things happened, we say, you know, I remember when that happened, it was the day I was on "The Diane Rehm Show." When we get older, we have fewer new experiences, fewer memorable experiences, our lives become more routine. And without those chronological landmarks, without those memories, time seems to fly.
FOERSo, I mean, I guess there's a lesson in that which is that, you know, we should try and make our lives memorable, we should try and take vacations to exotic locals and...
REHMAnd pay attention to the moment.
FOERI have to say if there's one takeaway that I had from this experience of training my memory, it's not memorizing shopping lists and decks of playing cards, which is all fine and good, but not terribly useful in daily life all the time. It's that if you want to remember something, you've got to be the kind of person who remembers to remember. You know, you can be the kind of person who throws down your keys and doesn't pay any attention and you can do that with everything in your life. You know, you can move through and not pay attention and not be mindful. But if you are going to remember your life, you're going to have a memorable life, you've got to be there, you've got to be mindful. You've got to be paying attention.
REHMWould you consider yourself geeky?
FOERI don't know (laugh). I think I went to high school with some people who would probably say so, yeah.
REHMAnd how about in college?
FOERSure. You know, it takes a certain kind of person to get this invested in a subject like this, I think. But I wear it proudly on my sleeve. It's okay.
REHMYeah, absolutely. And your wife is in medical school?
FOERShe is, yeah.
REHMAnd she's got to memorize, I mean, so much.
FOERIt is unbelievable what they make doctors memorize. I mean, it's...
REHMCan you help her?
FOERShe's the person that uses these memory techniques more than I do at this point.
FOERYeah, sure. To remember all sorts of stuff that is way over my head (laugh).
REHMWell, I have to congratulate you because I think your book sheds light, not just on the art and science of remembering, but the art and science of being aware and I think that that's what so many of us are not too often...
FOERWell, thank you so much.
REHMYou're most welcome. "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." Joshua Foer is the author. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is drshow.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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