I have a terrible memory – I can’t remember names, can’t recall dates, can’t recollect what I’m supposed to pick up at the supermarket, can’t bring to mind where I parked the car, can’t remember that I can’t remember. It’s not a new thing – it’s been going on like this, well, as long as I can remember. And I’m not alone: my friends complain about their poor memories, too. Who hasn’t forgotten an anniversary or a birthday? Who hasn’t neglected to pick up their wife’s mother at the airport? Who hasn’t forgotten the car windows were down until after the onslaught of a thundershower? Or that there’s a pie in the oven? Or to undergo that vasectomy you had promised to get? Which is why I was fascinated by an entertaining new book on the best-seller list called “Moonwalking With Einstein,” which is about memory and how you can, and probably should, learn how to remember things – shopping lists, phone numbers, epic poems, the names of people you meet, and French verb forms – for longer than, say, 10 seconds.
Joshua Foer, the book’s author, says he once had the same memory troubles as the rest of us, but after doing a story on memory champions – people who can remember the order of a shuffled deck of cards after glancing at them once, – he learned the techniques, the tricks, the science and the art of evading the mists of the mind. After only a year of training, he competed in the U.S. Memory Championship and won.
One of the things he discovered is how visual our memory is. Once you’ve seen Lady Gaga in one of her over-the-top outfits you will never forget her, yet I doubt I could pick country music star Brad Paisley out of a lineup – and I’ve seen him honky-tonking on TV at least a dozen times. When you see disaster survivors on television picking through the rubble of a tornado or a flood, almost the first thing out of their mouths is: “We lost all our family photographs.” Photo albums are the first thing people grab when they have to evacuate their homes, because losing a photograph is like losing your memory, like losing your mind. Our brains seemed to be hardwired for pictures.
The memory champions become adept at making memorable mental pictures out of names and numbers. And like all magic, it is a trick. It must be learned and practiced, but you don’t have to be a genius to do it; any person of average ability could learn most of these tricks pretty quickly.
One question Foer poses is why these very simple, very effective memory techniques aren’t taught in school. “Study class” may be the biggest oxymoron ever invented. Plopping kids in a room and pretending they’re studying is not the same thing as teaching them how to study. We tell kids to study, we make them study, we watch them study, but we never teach them how to study. Most of us can’t teach them because we don’t know how to do it ourselves. Yelling, “Turn off your smart phone and study!” seems to be our best tactic. It is good advice, but as Foer points out, the art of memorizing has been around since ancient Rome, when politicians were expected to memorize two-hour speeches word- for-word and remember the names of everyone they had ever met in their entire lives. When did we forget how to do that? It takes more than turning off the digital devices.
Foer also asks if we still need to remember things at all. When I was a teenager, I knew all my friends’ phone numbers. Now I know none of them – my phone remembers the numbers for me. I can Google the dates of the Norman Conquest and look up Pippa Middleton on Wikipedia. Why should I bother to remember when it’s all done for me? But try Googling “Who was that guy I met at Sal’s party last night who said I should call him about a job?” and see what kind of answer you get. And Google didn’t help me pay the 50-cent fine for forgetting to return Foer’s book to the library on time.
Jim Mullen’s latest book “Now in Paperback!” is now in paperback. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.
Copyright 2011, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.