I always hated history. Wait, I should be more specific: I always hated history class. History itself is actually very interesting, but history class was just the worst. All those tests and facts and dates—the horror!
“I’m terrible at memorizing,” was my ready excuse. I always blamed my memory for my less-than-stellar grades and general resistance to learning anything in class. Somewhere in my mind I believed that I truly didn’t have the memory it took to perform well in history.
But in truth, my memory is actually unusually good: I can recall song lyrics, names, minute details, even conversations, verbatim, with minimal effort.
“If you could remember things in class half as well as you could remember movies, you would be making straight A’s,” my mother would always say with exasperation. This was inarguably true, so why couldn’t I?
Last night, I attended an event at the New York Academy of Sciences in search of an answer. The event was a presentation given by Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer opened by describing a very peculiar event that takes place once a year, right here in New York City. Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about Ride the Subway without Your Pants Day (I know, I thought that at first, too). He was actually talking about the United States Memory Championship. He described, as he does in his book, his transformation from a naïve observer of the competition to the U.S. Memory Champion.
Foer initially encountered the bizarre event as a science journalist. When he realized that he could never write about the Championship as an observer, due to the pathological dullness of such an event, he decided to become a participant, never intending to actually win. But the glory of becoming the U.S. Memory Champion does not end in New York. He went on that year to compete at the World Memory Championship in London. Facing about a dozen extremely serious mental athletes, he lost astoundingly. Americans, it turns out, are somewhat of a joke in the world memory circuit. On the other hand, Germans, for example, are so serious that they arrive at the competition equipped with blinders. These people will not even let their own peripheral vision stand in the way of victory.
Foer revealed that the most startling thing about his journey was that the competitors all insisted that they had average memories.
“It’s not even about memory,” he said during his presentation. He explained that it was more about creativity—about coming up with the best and most efficient way to make something forgettable, like the names of a hundred strangers, memorable. Specifically, he described a technique known as the “memory palace,” designed to exploit our naturally superior spatial memory. Say you wanted to give a presentation without notes, which was the example Foer used. Construct a building in your mind, and fill it with the topics of your presentation. If you wanted to open by describing an unusual annual event, have the building’s foyer full of people engaged in a heated competition, slapping hands against the tables and blowing party whistles. If you wanted to follow this topic with an anecdote about Britney Spears (as Foer did), imagine a naked Britney Spears dancing in the doorway to the second room.
“Why is she naked?” he asked us, apparently reading our minds. Foer explained that the key to remembering something ordinary is to make it outrageous, lewd, or vulgar. This perhaps explains why the only times at which I excelled in history were when I implemented mnemonic devices of…questionable propriety.
This might help you remember stuff.
His presentation was delightful and fascinating, but it wasn’t until the question and answer session that I realized the explanation for my initial question.
“What does it take?” an audience-member asked, meaning, “What does it take to train your memory?”
After a moment’s pause, Foer explained that it really boiled down to whether or not one would actually try. Training one’s memory is a rigorous process that requires focus, dedication, and willpower.
“Most people won’t even be bothered with it,” he said good-naturedly. Admittedly, even thinking about trying to memorize the order of a deck of cards or the names of a hundred strangers exhausted me. And that, I believe, is when I realized why I struggled so fantastically in history—I just couldn’t be bothered with it.
Had I known then what I know now, well, I probably still wouldn’t have tried that hard in history (I imagine my mother is reading this with growing horror), but it’s certainly good to know that we are all capable of accomplishing fantastic feats of memory. For those of you who can be bothered with it, check out his book for a more in-depth description of tricks and techniques to train your memory.