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TED2012

Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do

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There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique -- called the memory palace -- and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.

- Writer
Joshua Foer is a science writer who 'accidentally' won the U.S. Memory Championship. Full bio

I'd like to invite you to close your eyes.
00:16
Imagine yourself standing
00:20
outside the front door of your home.
00:23
I'd like you to notice the color of the door,
00:27
the material that it's made out of.
00:30
Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.
00:34
They are competing in a naked bicycle race,
00:41
and they are headed straight for your front door.
00:44
I need you to actually see this.
00:48
They are pedaling really hard, they're sweaty,
00:50
they're bouncing around a lot.
00:53
And they crash straight into the front door of your home.
00:56
Bicycles fly everywhere, wheels roll past you,
01:00
spokes end up in awkward places.
01:04
Step over the threshold of your door
01:07
into your foyer, your hallway, whatever's on the other side,
01:11
and appreciate the quality of the light.
01:13
The light is shining down on Cookie Monster.
01:17
Cookie Monster is waving at you
01:23
from his perch on top of a tan horse.
01:26
It's a talking horse.
01:29
You can practically feel his blue fur tickling your nose.
01:31
You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie that he's about to shovel into his mouth.
01:35
Walk past him. Walk past him into your living room.
01:40
In your living room, in full imaginative broadband,
01:43
picture Britney Spears.
01:46
She is scantily clad, she's dancing on your coffee table,
01:49
and she's singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time."
01:55
And then follow me into your kitchen.
01:57
In your kitchen, the floor has been paved over with a yellow brick road
02:00
and out of your oven are coming towards you
02:04
Dorothy, the Tin Man,
02:08
the Scarecrow and the Lion from "The Wizard of Oz,"
02:10
hand-in-hand skipping straight towards you.
02:13
Okay. Open your eyes.
02:15
I want to tell you about a very bizarre contest
02:20
that is held every spring in New York City.
02:23
It's called the United States Memory Championship.
02:26
And I had gone to cover this contest a few years back
02:30
as a science journalist
02:33
expecting, I guess, that this was going to be
02:35
like the Superbowl of savants.
02:37
This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies,
02:40
widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.
02:44
(Laughter)
02:48
They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers,
02:51
looking at them just once.
02:55
They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers.
02:56
They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes.
03:01
They were competing to see who could memorize
03:04
the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest.
03:06
I was like, this is unbelievable.
03:10
These people must be freaks of nature.
03:12
And I started talking to a few of the competitors.
03:15
This is a guy called Ed Cook
03:19
who had come over from England
03:20
where he had one of the best trained memories.
03:22
And I said to him, "Ed, when did you realize
03:24
that you were a savant?"
03:27
And Ed was like, "I'm not a savant.
03:30
In fact, I have just an average memory.
03:33
Everybody who competes in this contest
03:35
will tell you that they have just an average memory.
03:37
We've all trained ourselves
03:40
to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory
03:42
using a set of ancient techniques,
03:46
techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece,
03:48
the same techniques that Cicero had used
03:52
to memorize his speeches,
03:55
that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books."
03:57
And I was like, "Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?"
04:01
And we were standing outside the competition hall,
04:05
and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant,
04:08
but somewhat eccentric English guy,
04:11
says to me, "Josh, you're an American journalist.
04:14
Do you know Britney Spears?"
04:19
I'm like, "What? No. Why?"
04:21
"Because I really want to teach Britney Spears
04:26
how to memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards
04:29
on U.S. national television.
04:31
It will prove to the world that anybody can do this."
04:34
(Laughter)
04:37
I was like, "Well I'm not Britney Spears,
04:41
but maybe you could teach me.
04:45
I mean, you've got to start somewhere, right?"
04:48
And that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me.
04:50
I ended up spending the better part of the next year
04:54
not only training my memory,
04:57
but also investigating it,
04:59
trying to understand how it works,
05:01
why it sometimes doesn't work
05:03
and what its potential might be.
05:05
I met a host of really interesting people.
05:07
This is a guy called E.P.
05:10
He's an amnesic who had, very possibly,
05:11
the very worst memory in the world.
05:14
His memory was so bad
05:17
that he didn't even remember he had a memory problem,
05:18
which is amazing.
05:21
And he was this incredibly tragic figure,
05:23
but he was a window into the extent
05:25
to which our memories make us who we are.
05:27
The other end of the spectrum: I met this guy.
05:31
This is Kim Peek.
05:34
He was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man."
05:35
We spent an afternoon together
05:39
in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books,
05:41
which was scintillating.
05:45
(Laughter)
05:48
And I went back and I read a whole host of memory treatises,
05:51
treatises written 2,000-plus years ago
05:55
in Latin in Antiquity
05:58
and then later in the Middle Ages.
06:00
And I learned a whole bunch of really interesting stuff.
06:03
One of the really interesting things that I learned
06:05
is that once upon a time,
06:08
this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory
06:11
was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today.
06:17
Once upon a time, people invested in their memories,
06:22
in laboriously furnishing their minds.
06:26
Over the last few millenia
06:31
we've invented a series of technologies --
06:34
from the alphabet to the scroll
06:36
to the codex, the printing press, photography,
06:39
the computer, the smartphone --
06:41
that have made it progressively easier and easier
06:43
for us to externalize our memories,
06:46
for us to essentially outsource
06:49
this fundamental human capacity.
06:51
These technologies have made our modern world possible,
06:54
but they've also changed us.
06:58
They've changed us culturally,
07:00
and I would argue that they've changed us cognitively.
07:02
Having little need to remember anymore,
07:05
it sometimes seems like we've forgotten how.
07:08
One of the last places on Earth
07:11
where you still find people passionate about this idea
07:13
of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory
07:16
is at this totally singular memory contest.
07:19
It's actually not that singular,
07:22
there are contests held all over the world.
07:23
And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.
07:25
A few years back a group of researchers at University College London
07:29
brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab.
07:34
They wanted to know:
07:37
Do these guys have brains
07:38
that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours?
07:40
The answer was no.
07:44
Are they smarter than the rest of us?
07:47
They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests,
07:50
and the answer was not really.
07:52
There was however one really interesting and telling difference
07:54
between the brains of the memory champions
07:58
and the control subjects that they were comparing them to.
08:00
When they put these guys in an fMRI machine,
08:02
scanned their brains
08:05
while they were memorizing numbers and people's faces and pictures of snowflakes,
08:07
they found that the memory champions
08:12
were lighting up different parts of the brain
08:14
than everyone else.
08:17
Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using,
08:19
a part of the brain that's involved in spatial memory and navigation.
08:22
Why? And is there something the rest of us can learn from this?
08:26
The sport of competitive memorizing
08:32
is driven by a kind of arms race
08:37
where every year somebody comes up
08:39
with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly,
08:43
and then the rest of the field has to play catchup.
08:45
This is my friend Ben Pridmore,
08:47
three-time world memory champion.
08:49
On his desk in front of him
08:51
are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards
08:52
that he is about to try to memorize in one hour,
08:56
using a technique that he invented and he alone has mastered.
08:59
He used a similar technique
09:03
to memorize the precise order
09:05
of 4,140 random binary digits
09:08
in half an hour.
09:13
Yeah.
09:16
And while there are a whole host of ways
09:18
of remembering stuff in these competitions,
09:22
everything, all of the techniques that are being used,
09:25
ultimately come down to a concept
09:28
that psychologists refer to as elaborative encoding.
09:31
And it's well illustrated by a nifty paradox
09:35
known as the Baker/baker paradox,
09:37
which goes like this:
09:39
If I tell two people to remember the same word,
09:41
if I say to you,
09:44
"Remember that there is a guy named Baker."
09:45
That's his name.
09:49
And I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy who is a baker."
09:50
And I come back to you at some point later on,
09:56
and I say, "Do you remember that word
09:59
that I told you a while back?
10:03
Do you remember what it was?"
10:04
The person who was told his name is Baker
10:06
is less likely to remember the same word
10:09
than the person was told his job is that he is a baker.
10:11
Same word, different amount of remembering; that's weird.
10:15
What's going on here?
10:18
Well the name Baker doesn't actually mean anything to you.
10:20
It is entirely untethered
10:25
from all of the other memories floating around in your skull.
10:27
But the common noun baker,
10:31
we know bakers.
10:33
Bakers wear funny white hats.
10:34
Bakers have flour on their hands.
10:37
Bakers smell good when they come home from work.
10:38
Maybe we even know a baker.
10:40
And when we first hear that word,
10:42
we start putting these associational hooks into it
10:44
that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date.
10:47
The entire art of what is going on
10:51
in these memory contests
10:54
and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life
10:56
is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers
10:59
into lower-case B bakers --
11:03
to take information that is lacking in context,
11:05
in significance, in meaning
11:08
and transform it in some way
11:11
so that it becomes meaningful
11:12
in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.
11:14
One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this
11:19
dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece.
11:23
It came to be known as the memory palace.
11:27
The story behind its creation goes like this:
11:29
There was a poet called Simonides
11:32
who was attending a banquet.
11:35
He was actually the hired entertainment,
11:37
because back then if you wanted to throw a really slamming party,
11:39
you didn't hire a D.J., you hired a poet.
11:42
And he stands up, delivers his poem from memory, walks out the door,
11:46
and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses,
11:50
kills everybody inside.
11:56
It doesn't just kill everybody,
11:58
it mangles the bodies beyond all recognition.
12:01
Nobody can say who was inside,
12:05
nobody can say where they were sitting.
12:07
The bodies can't be properly buried.
12:10
It's one tragedy compounding another.
12:12
Simonides, standing outside,
12:16
the sole survivor amid the wreckage,
12:19
closes his eyes and has this realization,
12:21
which is that in his mind's eye,
12:25
he can see where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting.
12:27
And he takes the relatives by the hand
12:32
and guides them each to their loved ones amid the wreckage.
12:35
What Simonides figured out at that moment
12:39
is something that I think we all kind of intuitively know,
12:42
which is that, as bad as we are
12:45
at remembering names and phone numbers
12:48
and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues,
12:51
we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories.
12:53
If I asked you to recount the first 10 words
12:59
of the story that I just told you about Simonides,
13:03
chances are you would have a tough time with it.
13:05
But I would wager
13:07
that if I asked you to recall
13:10
who is sitting on top of a talking tan horse
13:12
in your foyer right now,
13:17
you would be able to see that.
13:19
The idea behind the memory palace
13:21
is to create this imagined edifice in your mind's eye
13:24
and populate it with images
13:29
of the things that you want to remember --
13:30
the crazier, weirder, more bizarre,
13:32
funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is,
13:36
the more unforgettable it's likely to be.
13:39
This is advice that goes back 2,000-plus years
13:42
to the earliest Latin memory treatises.
13:45
So how does this work?
13:48
Let's say that you've been invited
13:50
to TED center stage to give a speech
13:52
and you want to do it from memory,
13:56
and you want to do it the way that Cicero would have done it
13:59
if he had been invited to TEDxRome 2,000 years ago.
14:04
What you might do
14:08
is picture yourself at the front door of your house.
14:11
And you'd come up with some sort
14:16
of an absolutely crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image
14:18
to remind you that the first thing you want to talk about
14:21
is this totally bizarre contest.
14:24
And then you'd go inside your house,
14:27
and you would see an image of Cookie Monster
14:30
on top of Mister Ed.
14:33
And that would remind you
14:35
that you would want to then introduce your friend Ed Cook.
14:36
And then you'd see an image of Britney Spears
14:39
to remind you of this funny anecdote you want to tell.
14:42
And you go into your kitchen,
14:45
and the fourth topic you were going to talk about
14:46
was this strange journey that you went on for a year,
14:48
and you have some friends to help you remember that.
14:51
This is how Roman orators memorized their speeches --
14:56
not word-for-word, which is just going to screw you up,
15:00
but topic-for-topic.
15:04
In fact, the phrase "topic sentence,"
15:06
that comes from the Greek word "topos,"
15:09
which means "place."
15:12
That's a vestige
15:14
of when people used to think about oratory and rhetoric
15:16
in these sorts of spatial terms.
15:18
The phrase "in the first place,"
15:20
that's like in the first place of your memory palace.
15:22
I thought this was just fascinating,
15:25
and I got really into it.
15:27
And I went to a few more of these memory contests.
15:29
And I had this notion that I might write something longer
15:32
about this subculture of competitive memorizers.
15:35
But there was a problem.
15:38
The problem was that a memory contest
15:40
is a pathologically boring event.
15:43
(Laughter)
15:46
Truly, it is like a bunch of people sitting around taking the SATs.
15:49
I mean, the most dramatic it gets
15:54
is when somebody starts massaging their temples.
15:55
And I'm a journalist, I need something to write about.
15:57
I know that there's this incredible stuff happening in these people's minds,
16:00
but I don't have access to it.
16:03
And I realized, if I was going to tell this story,
16:06
I needed to walk in their shoes a little bit.
16:08
And so I started trying to spend 15 or 20 minutes
16:11
every morning before I sat down with my New York Times
16:15
just trying to remember something.
16:17
Maybe it was a poem.
16:20
Maybe it was names from an old yearbook
16:22
that I bought at a flea market.
16:24
And I found that this was shockingly fun.
16:26
I never would have expected that.
16:31
It was fun because this is actually not about training your memory.
16:34
What you're doing is you're trying to get better and better and better
16:37
at creating, at dreaming up,
16:40
these utterly ludicrous, raunchy, hilarious
16:42
and hopefully unforgettable images in your mind's eye.
16:45
And I got pretty into it.
16:49
This is me wearing my standard competitive memorizer's training kit.
16:51
It's a pair of earmuffs
16:58
and a set of safety goggles that have been masked over
17:00
except for two small pinholes,
17:03
because distraction is the competitive memorizer's greatest enemy.
17:06
I ended up coming back to that same contest that I had covered a year earlier.
17:11
And I had this notion that I might enter it,
17:17
sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism.
17:19
It'd make, I thought, maybe a nice epilogue to all my research.
17:22
Problem was the experiment went haywire.
17:27
I won the contest,
17:30
which really wasn't supposed to happen.
17:33
(Applause)
17:36
Now it is nice
17:42
to be able to memorize speeches
17:44
and phone numbers and shopping lists,
17:47
but it's actually kind of beside the point.
17:50
These are just tricks.
17:53
They are tricks that work
17:55
because they're based on some pretty basic principles
17:57
about how our brains work.
18:00
And you don't have to be building memory palaces
18:02
or memorizing packs of playing cards
18:06
to benefit from a little bit of insight
18:08
about how your mind works.
18:10
We often talk about people with great memories
18:12
as though it were some sort of an innate gift,
18:14
but that is not the case.
18:16
Great memories are learned.
18:18
At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention.
18:22
We remember when we are deeply engaged.
18:26
We remember when we are able
18:29
to take a piece of information and experience
18:30
and figure out why it is meaningful to us,
18:33
why it is significant, why it's colorful,
18:35
when we're able to transform it in some way
18:38
that it makes sense
18:40
in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds,
18:42
when we're able to transform Bakers into bakers.
18:44
The memory palace, these memory techniques,
18:49
they're just shortcuts.
18:52
In fact, they're not even really shortcuts.
18:54
They work because they make you work.
18:56
They force a kind of depth of processing,
19:00
a kind of mindfulness,
19:04
that most of us don't normally walk around exercising.
19:05
But there actually are no shortcuts.
19:09
This is how stuff is made memorable.
19:12
And I think if there's one thing that I want to leave you with,
19:15
it's what E.P.,
19:19
the amnesic who couldn't even remember that he had a memory problem,
19:22
left me with,
19:26
which is the notion
19:27
that our lives are the sum of our memories.
19:29
How much are we willing to lose
19:34
from our already short lives
19:40
by losing ourselves in our Blackberries, our iPhones,
19:44
by not paying attention to the human being across from us
19:51
who is talking with us,
19:54
by being so lazy that we're not willing
19:56
to process deeply?
19:58
I learned firsthand
20:02
that there are incredible memory capacities
20:04
latent in all of us.
20:08
But if you want to live a memorable life,
20:10
you have to be the kind of person
20:13
who remembers to remember.
20:15
Thank you.
20:18
(Applause)
20:20
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Joshua Foer - Writer
Joshua Foer is a science writer who 'accidentally' won the U.S. Memory Championship.

Why you should listen

In 2005 science writer Joshua Foer went to cover the U.S. Memory Championship. A year later he was back -- as contestant. A year of mental training with Europe's top memorizer turned into a book, Moonwalking with Einstein, which is both a chronicle of his immersion in the memory culture and wonderfully accessible and informative introduction to the science of memory. Much more surprisingly, that year of training also turned into a first-place victory at the national competition in New York and the chance to represent the U.S. at the World Memory Championship. Foer's writing has appeared in National Geographic, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications. He is the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, an online guide to the world’s wonders and curiosities, and is also the co-founder of the design competition Sukkah City.

More profile about the speaker
Joshua Foer | Speaker | TED.com