Monday, February 21, 2011

Train your brain to be a memory athlete

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article by Joshua Foer on memory training. It documents how he went from a reporter looking for a story to a participant to a the new U.S. record holder in speed cards (a memory event in which you memorize the order of a deck of cards as fast as you can).

The method he uses is the art of memory, roughly the method of loci combined with dramatic images. He mentions Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, an interview with whom you can see here. In the interview, you can see how Chooi makes connections between sounds and images.

It's obviously a very powerful technique, both as shown in the video of Dr. Chooi, and as attested in many scientific studies. The question, then, is why do so few language learners employ it? Having tried it myself when learning kanji, I can say I found it very difficult to come up with memorable images. As the article explains, this itself is a skill which requires dedicated practice. Here's where most of us fall down. We're not willing to put in the short term effort for the long-term gain.

Interestingly, Foer mentions that he often fails to employ his own memory talents to daily tasks such as keeping track of his keys or remembering friends' phone numbers. I suppose this is like an Olympic sprinter telling people of course he doesn't run everywhere.


Adam said...

Is The Art of Memory the first book you would recommend to someone who is looking to employ the method of loci? At this point, I am entirely ignorant of the different memory methods being used. It seems like this kind of stuff would be taught during one's freshman year in college.

Brett said...

To be honest, I haven't read any books on the subject, mostly just mentions and articles here and there. The art of memory is a technique. It may be a book, too, but I'm not aware of such. The book describing Joshua Foer's experiences is called Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

Steward of the Society said...

The Art of Memory is not a text for mastering the Art qua Art. It is rather a work on the possible effect of its use on the history of ideas and ideation. Those few who do practice the Art usually do not progress beyond a stage somewhat similar to that of Olympians exercising but not yet engaged in the event for which they have trained. The purpose of the Art was not re-membering but accessing Memory - Natural Memory. A micro-macro cosmic relationship.

Brett said...

My Aunt informs me that The Art of Memory is a 1966 non-fiction book by British historian Frances A. Yates which follows the history of mnemonic systems from the classical period to the Renaissance era.