Memory as a human superpower

Plato worried that reading would diminish the memory, and he was right.  Now in our information age, our memories have shriveled even more.  A third of British citizens under 30 don’t know their home phone numbers.  Two-thirds of American teenagers don’t know when the Civil War took place.  One-fifth don’t know who we fought against in World War II.  And yet, the normal human mind, when trained right, is capable of great feats of memory.

Joshua Foer has written a book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, in the course of which he studied memory-improving techniques to the point that he became the 2006 Memory Champion–yes, there is such a competition–by memorizing a sequence of 52 cards in one minute, 40 seconds.

From a review of the book in the Washington Post by Marie Arana:

Devalued though human memory has become, it is what makes us who we are. Our memories, Foer tells us, are the seat of civilization, the bedrock of wisdom, the wellspring of creativity. His passionate and deeply engrossing book, “Moonwalking With Einstein,” means to persuade us that we shouldn’t surrender them to integrated circuits so easily. It is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind.

In the course of “Moonwalking,” we learn that our brains are no larger nor more sophisticated than our ancestors’ were 30,000 years ago. If a Stone Age baby were adopted by 21st-century parents, “the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.” The blank slate of memory hasn’t changed one bit, except that we’ve lost the incentive to use it to store large amounts of information. As one of Foer’s fellow mental athletes puts it, in the course of ordinary modern life, “we actually do anti-Olympic training . . . the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes . . . and spends the rest of the time watching television.”

Foer introduces us to memory prodigies such as the young journalist S, who irked his employer because he took no notes but could memorize 70 digits at a time, reciting them forward and backward after one hearing. He could replicate complex formulas, although he didn’t know math; was able to repeat Italian poetry, though he spoke no Italian; and, most remarkable of all, his memories never seemed to degrade.

There are, too, master chess players who can remember every move of a match weeks or even years after the event. They become so skilled at recalling positions that they can take on several opponents at once, moving the pieces in their heads, with no physical board before them. There are London cabbies with such intricate maps committed to memory that their brains have enlarged right posterior hippocampuses. There is the child relegated to “the dunces’ class” because he cannot perform school tasks well, although he can identify distant birds by how they fly, having memorized dozens of flight patterns.

Foer sets out to meet the legendary “Brainman,” who learned Spanish in a single weekend, could instantly tell if any number up to 10,000 was prime, and saw digits in colors and shapes, enabling him to hold long lists of them in memory. The author also tracks down “Rain Man” Kim Peek, the famous savant whose astonishing ability to recite all of Shakespeare’s works, reproduce scores from a vast canon of classical music and retain the contents of 9,000 books was immortalized in the Hollywood movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

When Foer is told that the Rain Man had an IQ of merely 87 – that he was actually missing a part of his brain; that memory champions have no more intelligence than you or I; that building a memory is a matter of dedication and training – he decides to try for the U.S. memory championship himself. Here is where the book veers sharply from science journalism to a memoir of a singular adventure.

via Joshua Foer’s ‘Moonwalking With Einstein,’ on the nature of memory.

You can buy the book here,

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “When Foer is told that the Rain Man had an IQ of merely 87″

    That isn’t particularly low.

    Anyway, lots of Christian school curriculum has memory work. Even my little pre-K son has memory cards to teach Bible verses for the child to memorize. There is a picture on front as a prompt for the child to recite the short verse. There is about one verse per month.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “When Foer is told that the Rain Man had an IQ of merely 87″

    That isn’t particularly low.

    Anyway, lots of Christian school curriculum has memory work. Even my little pre-K son has memory cards to teach Bible verses for the child to memorize. There is a picture on front as a prompt for the child to recite the short verse. There is about one verse per month.

  • Orianna Laun

    Funny, and educators have been harped on for years about overuse of “rote memorization.”
    When my middle school students would complain about having to memorize commandments and their explanations as being too much, I’d smile and say that I was expected to memorize them in 1st and 2nd grade. Maybe we’re too techno lazy–we’d rather know where to find the information than actually know the information. Or maybe it’s information overload. There’s so much to know, how can we know what’s worth memorizing?

  • Orianna Laun

    Funny, and educators have been harped on for years about overuse of “rote memorization.”
    When my middle school students would complain about having to memorize commandments and their explanations as being too much, I’d smile and say that I was expected to memorize them in 1st and 2nd grade. Maybe we’re too techno lazy–we’d rather know where to find the information than actually know the information. Or maybe it’s information overload. There’s so much to know, how can we know what’s worth memorizing?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Hmm.

    A third of British citizens under 30 don’t know their home phone numbers. Two-thirds of American teenagers don’t know when the Civil War took place. One-fifth don’t know who we fought against in World War II. And yet, the normal human mind, when trained right, is capable of great feats of memory.

    “And yet”? I’m pretty sure one could point to feats of those same, poor, benighted teens (it’s always the teens; one wonders how we adults came to be as awesome as we are, given that we once were such teens) as evidence of “great feats of memory”. The problem is what’s being compared.

    Ask that same teen to recite lines from a Lady Gaga poem. Or from a recent episode of Glee. (If I may stereotype, and clearly it’s already on the table, so I can.) Now ask a 50-year-old to do the same. What’s that? The teenager outperformed the old guy on this memory task?

    Do you know why so many teens don’t know particular history dates? Because they don’t care. Do you know why so many people don’t memorize phone numbers? Because they don’t have to — their phone does that. Might as well complain that no one under 30 has their car’s VIN memorized, as well.

    If we want to make accurate comparisons about memory, we need to consider things that people actually want to remember. Sure, there are some (kinda strange) people out there who memorize utterly pointless things like series of random digits or cards. Is that impressive, or evidence that they don’t have enough to do in life?

    I know of what I speak. I once had pi memorized to 120 digits. It all started because I was bored in algebra class and started memorizing the (55-digit) pi poster that ran around the room. These days, I only retain the initial 50+ digits in my head. And yet, you know what? I don’t know most people’s phone numbers. So am I an impressive example of human memory, or a sad example of the modern inability to remember?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Hmm.

    A third of British citizens under 30 don’t know their home phone numbers. Two-thirds of American teenagers don’t know when the Civil War took place. One-fifth don’t know who we fought against in World War II. And yet, the normal human mind, when trained right, is capable of great feats of memory.

    “And yet”? I’m pretty sure one could point to feats of those same, poor, benighted teens (it’s always the teens; one wonders how we adults came to be as awesome as we are, given that we once were such teens) as evidence of “great feats of memory”. The problem is what’s being compared.

    Ask that same teen to recite lines from a Lady Gaga poem. Or from a recent episode of Glee. (If I may stereotype, and clearly it’s already on the table, so I can.) Now ask a 50-year-old to do the same. What’s that? The teenager outperformed the old guy on this memory task?

    Do you know why so many teens don’t know particular history dates? Because they don’t care. Do you know why so many people don’t memorize phone numbers? Because they don’t have to — their phone does that. Might as well complain that no one under 30 has their car’s VIN memorized, as well.

    If we want to make accurate comparisons about memory, we need to consider things that people actually want to remember. Sure, there are some (kinda strange) people out there who memorize utterly pointless things like series of random digits or cards. Is that impressive, or evidence that they don’t have enough to do in life?

    I know of what I speak. I once had pi memorized to 120 digits. It all started because I was bored in algebra class and started memorizing the (55-digit) pi poster that ran around the room. These days, I only retain the initial 50+ digits in my head. And yet, you know what? I don’t know most people’s phone numbers. So am I an impressive example of human memory, or a sad example of the modern inability to remember?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “I once had pi memorized to 120 digits. It all started because I was bored in algebra class and started memorizing the (55-digit) pi poster that ran around the room.”

    What is it about guys that makes them want to memorize pi to so many digits? My son has two friends that did the same thing and they would rattle it off now and then.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “I once had pi memorized to 120 digits. It all started because I was bored in algebra class and started memorizing the (55-digit) pi poster that ran around the room.”

    What is it about guys that makes them want to memorize pi to so many digits? My son has two friends that did the same thing and they would rattle it off now and then.

  • trotk

    tODD, Lady Gaga writes poetry?

  • trotk

    tODD, Lady Gaga writes poetry?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Trotk (@5), I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that. I meant lyrics, of course. Which are … a kind of poem. So, you know.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Trotk (@5), I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that. I meant lyrics, of course. Which are … a kind of poem. So, you know.

  • trotk

    tODD, I had a chem lab with two guys who had pi memorized to 350+ digits. They also wore 4 or 5 calculators on their belts. I bet they didn’t know any Lady Gaga.

    I have found that memorizing things is easier than most people think. It is hard at first, and people give up, saying that they don’t have good memories, but persistence and technique are all that are needed. I memorized Philippians 10 or 12 years ago, and I was amazed at how much easier it was by the end of the book. My brain figured out the process and by the last chapter, it only took a couple readings to have it nailed. And it is still stuck in my mind. The hardest part were the first 10-15 verses, which I had to repeat dozens of times.

  • trotk

    tODD, I had a chem lab with two guys who had pi memorized to 350+ digits. They also wore 4 or 5 calculators on their belts. I bet they didn’t know any Lady Gaga.

    I have found that memorizing things is easier than most people think. It is hard at first, and people give up, saying that they don’t have good memories, but persistence and technique are all that are needed. I memorized Philippians 10 or 12 years ago, and I was amazed at how much easier it was by the end of the book. My brain figured out the process and by the last chapter, it only took a couple readings to have it nailed. And it is still stuck in my mind. The hardest part were the first 10-15 verses, which I had to repeat dozens of times.

  • Orianna Laun

    On the lighter side, maybe the issue is like yesterday’s “Pickles” by Brian Crane. http://comics.com/pickles/2011-03-08/

  • Orianna Laun

    On the lighter side, maybe the issue is like yesterday’s “Pickles” by Brian Crane. http://comics.com/pickles/2011-03-08/

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  • helen

    Orianna @ 8
    On the lighter side, maybe the issue is like yesterday’s “Pickles” by Brian Crane. http://comics.com/pickles/2011-03-08/

    Which is, more or less, what I told people who wanted me to read “The Shack”…or “Atlas Shrugged” some while ago. [If I'd read Ayn Rand though, I might have been forewarned about the advisor.]

  • helen

    Orianna @ 8
    On the lighter side, maybe the issue is like yesterday’s “Pickles” by Brian Crane. http://comics.com/pickles/2011-03-08/

    Which is, more or less, what I told people who wanted me to read “The Shack”…or “Atlas Shrugged” some while ago. [If I'd read Ayn Rand though, I might have been forewarned about the advisor.]


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