The title of this non-fiction masterpiece is somewhat misleading but certainly memorable. I’m only partially through it so I still do not know why the author chose this title, but I’m enjoying this book that reads more like a novel than a non-fiction book about memory. The author, Joshua Foer, spent a year hanging out with “memory athletes” and challenged himself to improve his memory and compete with them.
The old joke is, “there are three signs of old age, the first is memory loss . . . I can’t remember the other two.” According to Joshua Foer, we need not give in to our aging memory and we can do something about it fairly easily with practice. He shares the astonishing statistics on memory athletes, one of whom can remember more than 1,500 items in order.
We long ago learned that the human brain is hard wired to remember some things and forget much of what lands in our sensory path. We have no use for most of what we encounter, so being able to forget those bits of information is useful. Foer also tells about individuals born with amazing memories for information but who cannot process it. A great memory does not just recall data, but also applies the information usefully. Our brains are designed to seek context for information so that it is available when needed.
In the fifth century B.C., Simonides used and taught the “Memory Palace” as a technique for memorization and it is still used today. By relating information and sequences to familiar landscapes or building interiors, we can store information for later recall. We use our visual memory of a familiar place to cue us for recall of new information we hope to retain.
Foer mentions George Miller’s pivotal research in 1954 that resulted in the article, The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two that suggests most of us can store seven chunks of data with short term memory, but some can handle nine and some retain only five chunks, thus seven plus or minus two. John Medina’s Brain Rules, another great book based on the physiology of the brain, is a great companion read for this book, because it specifies how the brain encodes memories and explains the interaction of the animal brain, amygdala and hippocampus with the cerebral cortex.
Joshua Foer’s journey to the U.S. Memory Championship is the thread that leads you through his fascinating book. I’m looking forward to the rest of it. And I am already practicing some of the techniques. You can teach an old dog new tricks, if you can get him to read a good book.
– Tim Merriman