John Quincy Adams is doing his father's laundry in my basement. Andrew Jackson changes the furnace filter, while Martin Van Buren looks into the refrigerator. Meanwhile, John Denver sings "Rocky Mountain High" near the synagogue at mile 2.25 of Rock Creek Trail, while ultrarunner friend Caroline Williams smokes a pipe with Sir Walter Raleigh at milepost 8.
Joshua Foer has a book due to come out soon: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Hence, considerable recent buzz in the media, including an excerpt/adaptation in the New York Times. Foer writes entertainingly about how he learned to build mental associations and thereby quickly memorize cards in shuffled decks, random number sequences, poems, etc. — and thus win the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championship. He tells how normal people can remember vast quantities of information using an ancient technique that taps into spatial areas of the brain:
The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would for the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn't been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.
That's why the Presidents of the United States are hanging around my basement. Before the concert on Thursday evening I memorize the list by associating them with a walk through the house. Grover Cleveland and his twin brother Grover Cleveland are at the top and bottom of the stairs, with Benjamin Harrison trapped in between. Richard Nixon stands in the garden and peeks into a window; Gerald Ford is parked in my back yard. I can now recite the Presidents forward and backward, and tell who served before and after any one of them. Yes, just a parlor trick, but I'm frankly surprised at how well it works.
Foer talks about how people can go beyond "the O.K. plateau" and become exceptionally talented at physical or mental activities, experience that applies to countless topics:
... top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they've already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn't enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail. ...
After the U.S. Presidents fall victim to the Memory Palace trick before the concert even begins, I set to work on learning the U.S. states and their capitals. Rock Creek Trail stretches 14 miles, from DC upstream to Rockville, and I've run along it so often that I can visualize landmarks every quarter mile or so. Cf. Rock Creek Trail Miles 0 to 4, Rock Creek Trail Miles 5 to 9, Rock Creek Trail Miles 10 to 14, and countless Running Logbook entries.
Hmmmm, with four states every mile there's plenty of room for all fifty. Mile 0, leave DC and enter Montgomery County = Montgomery, Alabama. Mile 4, a fortress with a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise sells hot dogs = Frankfort, Kentucky. Mile 10.25, Elvis plays on the soccer field with Grand Old Oprey musicians = Nashville, Tennessee. And so forth, with silly, bizarre, and naughty images as required.
How to improve farther, in memory or other fields? The best learners of typing or memorization skills, Foer says, push themselves to go 10%-20% faster than their "comfort pace", allow themselves to make mistakes, and then analyze those errors so they can fix them. They approach the challenge:
... like a science. They develop hypotheses about their limitations; they conduct experiments and track data. "It's like you're developing a piece of technology or working on a scientific theory," the three-time world champ Andi Bell once told me. "You have to analyze what you're doing."
Useful things to do with better memory? I should learn some good poetry and literature excerpts by heart, maybe Shakespeare soliloquies. And I need to figure out how to recognize people's faces and associate them with their names, to overcome what may be a mild case of prosopagnosia. Hmmmm ...