How to Study to Remember Everything

Ever feel like you just don’t have enough time to memorize everything for that exam? What would you do if there were a way to memorize names, faces, dates, numbers, and formulae that was foolproof and time-efficient? Joshua Foer has the book for you: Moonwalking with Einstein tells his journey into the world of memory, a journey that culminates with him winning the U.S. National Memory Championship and setting a world record after only a year of practicing simple techniques that have been around since ancient times.Memory was a necessity in the pre-technological world. Foer presents much evidence to support the claim that since books were scarce and laborious to copy, they were often memorized, a feat which boggles our modern minds. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have many of the traces of this memory tradition—repetitive structures and also fantastical narrative. Back in ancient Rome, Cicero used to memorize all his speeches before delivering them without a text before him. What we would consider a genius of memory was commonplace in the world before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which externalized knowledge and freed us from the task of committing the texts to memory. Nowadays, only a small fraction of us use our memories to this extent, pushing our memories to the limit, performing feats such as memorizing 25,000 digits of π and the names of 300 people at a time.

Though some praise the efficiency of the Internet, the externalized memory, it’s clear that we students still have to memorize much information. We can still profit from the concepts developed in that ancient text, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, in which people engage in something called a “memory palace”: a mental map in a familiar place wherein you place florid and extraordinary reminders for the things you have to do. Foer goes into much detail here and actually walks the reader through how to do this, as well as exactly how he practiced memorizing full decks of cards and made friends with the various gurus of memory. He definitely wants to teach you to max out your memory too. And I confess that the systems work.

Cicero would use a place he was familiar with to place reminders of all the things he had to say or do. For example, choose your own home. You have a list of seven tasks — feed your fish, write a thank you note to Joe, buy flowers for your significant other, go to the gym, email Sophie, pick up your mail, and finish Ulysses. Place vivid reminders in sequential order in the visual plane of your home; the more vivid the reminders, the better. Imagine that by your front door you see a giant goldfish eating cheesy Goldfish crackers — perhaps he’s next to the front door. Then you look at the door itself — it’s made of paper, and on it is written “Thank you Joe” over and over again. Entering your home, you are in the front room, where you see flowers covering the floor. Then you walk to the kitchen. You see that instead of kitchen appliances on the table, there are miniature people with barbells on the counter. Email is harder, because it’s more abstract. But imagine that your email to Sophie is an email to a woman, a she-mail. You imagine a shemale — a big bearded lady sitting on the kitchen counter. Then you walk past the kitchen and see a man in the hallway: Leopold Bloom. But it’s not Leopold Bloom — it’s a man coming out of a blooming flower. Walk yourself through this familiar setting with these strong visual reminders. Foer goes on to teach how to memorize strings of numbers, the order of a deck of cards, names to faces, and how to maintain this mental acuity.

He explores the mechanisms of memory as well, presenting entertaining and in-depth case studies of individuals who cannot forget anything and others who can’t form new memories, relating many of the historic scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the workings of memory.

And why is this understanding of memory hacks valuable? As the author writes, “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.” I invite you to join me in this journey and enrich your life with memories.


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