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Memory Champs? They're Just Like The Rest Of Us

In the 1960s, writer George Plimpton pitched to major league all-stars, tried out as an NFL quarterback, sparred with the great boxer Archie Moore — and wrote all about it. Ever since, writers have been taking up a whole range of athletic pursuits for the experience and for the material.

Journalist Joshua Foer took a stab at mental athleticism, and not only did he compete at the USA Memory Championship, he set a U.S. memory record.

"I certainly didn't expect the story would end up where it did," Foer tells NPR's Robert Siegel. In his new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer investigates the nature of memory and his own unexpected journey down memory lane.

Moonwalking with Einstein
By Joshua Foer
Hardcover, 320 pages
The Penguin Press
List Price: $26.95

"I should, I suppose, begin by explaining that there is a rather bizarre contest that's held every spring called the United States Memory Championship," Foer says, "in which people get together and try to see who can remember the most random numbers, the most lines of poetry, the most shuffled decks of playing cards."

Foer first attended the contest as a science journalist, expecting to find something akin to the Super Bowl of savants, he says. But he was surprised to discover that most competitors did not even have photographic memories; rather, they had simply trained their brains — which they claimed were "average" — to think in more memorable ways. What was more, they insisted that anyone could do it — even Foer.

So Foer went into training under the guidance of Ed Cooke, a man with one of the best trained memories in the world. Foer spent a better part of a year cultivating his memory and trying to understand how it works, and why it sometimes fails.

His training involved learning an array of mnemonic devices — the derivation of the book's peculiar title and cover art. By associating goofy or vivid imagery with something you're trying to remember, it becomes easier to summon it to memory.

"It's a kind of code," Foer says. "The idea is that an image that is so unlike any other image that you've ever thought of is one that's more likely to stick in your mind."

For Foer, picturing Einstein moonwalking a la Michael Jackson did the trick. If imagining Einstein walking on the moon seems funnier to you, that can work, too, he says.

Other memorization techniques are far less silly and much more technical. Take, for example, the memory palace, a mnemonic device created in ancient Greece that transfers memorization to the spatial field of your brain. In the Middle Ages, tricks like these enabled scholars to memorize entire books, Foer explains.

"They all more or less come down to the notion that as bad as we are at remembering a poem or a phone number, we're really good at remembering certain kinds of visual and spatial information," Foer says. "So the idea behind these memory techniques is ... to transform the kind of information we're not very good at remembering into the kinds of visual spatial memory that our minds are actually built for."

To use the memory palace technique, you simply construct an imagined building of memory to peruse. You begin by visualizing a place that you are very familiar with, like your own house. As you visualize this familiar place, you mentally park the information in spots throughout the house that you can vividly recall, like the mailbox or the sink.

"The idea is when you walk back through that space, if you've done it correctly, you'll see the images that you left behind when you were initially remembering that information," says Foer.

After a year of training his mind with devices like these, Foer returned to the competition as a contender. It ended up feeling a bit like the SATs, he says.

"It's a lot of people sitting around at desks scribbling away answers furiously and then handing them in at the front of the room. It's not quite as sexy as a spelling bee, but it's definitely got its drama," Foer says.

For Foer, that drama included being crowned the new national memory champion and setting the U.S. record in card memorization. He was able to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds, and then recall it within five minutes.

Though he has since lost the title, Foer set the record in speed cards — at least in the U.S.

"The best guys in the world can do this in under 30 seconds, which sounds almost extraterrestrial and is really something to behold," says Foer.

Instead of defending his title, Foer has taken a break from mnemonic tricks and is content just to watch.

"I'm a fat schlub at this point," he jokes. "I basically hung up my cleats after winning that contest. It was sort of an experiment in participatory journalism, and I got my answer."

But that doesn't mean he's no longer absent-minded. "The sad truth is, I still forget where I parked my car all the time," he says. "I still forget why it was that I opened the refrigerator door. I still forget to put down the toilet seat."

While you would think that those visual experiences would be easy to imprint, especially for a U.S. memory champion, Foer says it needs to be a conscious decision.

"The thing about these techniques is they only work if you remember to use them. That's sort of the funny thing," he says. "You've got to remember to remember."

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the 1960s, the writer George Plimpton pitched to some major league all-stars, tried out as an NFL quarterback, sparred with the great boxer Archie Moore and then wrote about it. And ever since, writers have been taking up a whole range of athletic pursuits for the experience and for the material.

Well, Joshua Foer presents us with an interesting variation on that theme. His book, "Moonwalking with Einstein" describes his brief but rather successful career as a mental athlete. "Moonwalking with Einstein" is about the art and science of memory. Joshua Foer, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSHUA FOER (Author, "Moonwalking with Einstein"): Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: I should say first that while most practitioners of athletic participatory journalism discover that the gap between the competitive elite and the eager reporter is a vast chasm. You actually achieved great heights in the U.S. memory championships.

Mr. FOER: Yeah, I mean, I certainly didn't expect the story would end up where it did. I should, I suppose, begin by explaining that there is a rather bizarre contest that's held every spring called the United States Memory Championship in which people get together and try to see who can remember the most random numbers, the most lines of poetry, the most shuffled decks of playing cards.

And I had shown up at that contest as a science journalist basically expecting to find, I don't know, what I thought would be the Super Bowl of savants. But as I talked to the competitors, I discovered something rather different, which was these guys were not savants, they didn't have photographic memories. Rather, they had trained their memories. And they said anybody could do it. And I said, anybody? And they said, yeah, you know, even you. We could teach you.

SIEGEL: And you went into training.

Mr. FOER: Yeah. I came under the influence of a guy named Ed Cook, who has one of the best trained memories in the world. And I spent the better part of a year training my memory, also trying to understand how memory works, why it sometimes fails us, what its potential might be.

SIEGEL: All of which brings me to the cover art of your book and the title, "Moonwalking with Einstein," which is displayed over the image of, you know, some rooms, in two cases connected by stairs. One of them is sort of a bathing beauty sitting on the floor. Another one has a sumo wrestler. Another one there's a nurse with a monkey hanging from the ceiling. And I'd like you to explain the significance of that - that sort of what seems like utterly random image.

Mr. FOER: Well, the title itself, "Moonwalking with Einstein," actually references a memory device that I used while training my memory. The image, Einstein moonwalking, is kind of goofy. And the fact that it's goofy is part of what makes it memorable.

SIEGEL: Is he walking around like Michael Jackson or is he on the moon?

Mr. FOER: I'm imagining him with a white glove, but I suppose you could conjure up any image that you wanted.

SIEGEL: OK.

Mr. FOER: But the idea is that an image that is so unlike any other image that you've ever thought of is one that's more likely to stick in your mind.

SIEGEL: So we can attach things that we want to remember to these vivid images that we can summon to memory.

Mr. FOER: Yeah. That's exactly how it works. It's a kind of code.

SIEGEL: Some of the devices that you describe are really quite old. And I'd like you talk about the memory palace for a moment - how it works and who came up with the idea.

Mr. FOER: Sure. Most of the techniques that are used in one of these memory competitions goes back to ancient Greece. These are the same techniques that in the Middle Ages scholars used to memorize entire books. And they all more or less come down to the notion that as bad as we are at remembering a poem or a phone number, we're really good at remembering certain kinds of visual and spatial information.

And so the idea behind these memory techniques that are used in these competitions is to transform the kind of information we're not very good at remembering into the kinds of visual spatial memory that our minds are actually built for.

SIEGEL: So I learn to visualize in my mind, say, a house, my own home, someplace I'm very familiar with, and as I'm trying to remember numbers or images that have nothing whatever to do with my house, I mentally park them in places, associate them with very vivid images that I have in my mind. Put one in the mailbox, you know, one in the sink and all that and go around my house doing this.

Mr. FOER: That's actually a terrific description of how a memory palace works. The idea is when you walk back through that space, if you've done it correctly, you'll see the images that you left behind when you were initially remembering that information.

SIEGEL: Well, after a year of preparation, working out, improving your memory, you go to the U.S. Memory Championships, what was it like?

Mr. FOER: Well, a memory contest is a bit like the SATs. It's a lot of people sitting around at desks scribbling away answers furiously and then handing them in at the front of the room. It's not quite as sexy as a spelling bee, but it's definitely got its drama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of memory championship)

Mr. FOER: Queen of hearts?

Unidentified Man: Queen of hearts is the correct second card.

Mr. FOER: Nine of clubs.

Unidentified Man: There is the third card.

Mr. FOER: King of hearts.

Unidentified Man: There is the fourth card.

Mr. FOER: King of diamonds.

Unidentified Man: We have our new national memory champion is now Josh Foer. Congratulations.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: You actually won the U.S. Memory Championship.

Mr. FOER: Yeah, I mean, having entered it as this experiment in participatory journalism, the experiment sort of went awry.

SIEGEL: And you achieved, for example, a breakthrough in terms of being able to memorize a deck of cards.

Mr. FOER: Ultimately, I mean, it's - I set a new U.S. record in that event, in the card memorization event, which I really hadn't expected. I think that record has subsequently fallen, though.

SIEGEL: But you have to tell us what your record was.

Mr. FOER: At the time it was a minute and 40 seconds.

SIEGEL: You have to explain what you did in the minute and 40 seconds.

Mr. FOER: Sure. In a minute and 40 seconds, I remembered the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards and then recalled it within five minutes. Now, the best guys in the world can do this in under 30 seconds, which sounds almost extraterrestrial and is really something to behold.

SIEGEL: Now, since that time, do you continue to practice? Do you continue to work out and try to memorize the odd license plate that goes by or are you out of shape?

Mr. FOER: Oh, I'm a fat schlub at this point. You know, I basically hung up my cleats after winning that contest. It was sort of an experiment in participatory journalism and I got my answer. And the sad truth is, I still forget where I parked my car all the time. I still forget why it was that I opened the refrigerator door. I still forget to put down the toilet seat.

SIEGEL: And yet, those are visual experiences that we think might imprint a little bit more easily.

Mr. FOER: You'd think so. I mean, the thing about these techniques is they only work if you remember to use them. That's sort of the funny thing. You've got to remember to remember.

SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Foer, thank you very much for talking with us about the book.

Mr. FOER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The book is "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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