What Use is a Memory These Days?

             I like to tell people I continue to work as a waiter because I want to keep one foot in the real world. As stressful and jarring as it is to be thrown into a crowded restaurant on a bustling Saturday night after doing academic stuff all week, I realize at the end of each of those harrowing shifts there’s nothing that quite matches their demand for fluid intelligence. And I like to add yet another demand. At my first restaurant job, a fellow server named Becky explained to me once that she never really decided not to write down orders; she just realized at some point she wasn’t even referring to what she’d written when she typed the orders into the computer. Since I was still learning the menu at the time I suspected Becky might be a genius. But it wasn’t long before I was memorizing my orders too.

            I was still at that first restaurant when I read Mind Performance Hacks and learned about mnemonics like memory palaces and number-rhyme pegs (one-gun, two-shoe…), but I decided against trying to use them at work. Munchies (which later became Luckies) was my brain gym; the idea was to be challenged, not to use shortcuts. Still, I was uncomfortable every time I approached a table with ten or more people, knowing I was good for at best eleven orders. Maybe I could push that number higher, but it would mean getting big tables more often than I could count on. So in the back of my mind I toyed with the possibility of sitting down some day and mastering the memory techniques.

            The day I first attended a class to prepare me for teaching Intro to Rhetoric and Composition courses the professor challenged us to remember the names of all our classmates. Sitting in a circle, we each in turn introduced ourselves and commented on our favorite item of clothing in our wardrobes. I treated it as an order. But I had an extra few seconds for each name, so I went back and reviewed as many prior names as I could before the next person said his or her name. A classmate named Shannon and I were the only two to remember all twenty-two names. (I have no idea how she did it.) Pleased with myself, I figured I’d have no difficulty remembering the names of my students in the future. And I didn’t—until my third semester teaching. That’s when names and faces started to blur and I began to find myself staring at some poor student as I was taking attendance, silently cursing him for being such an undifferentiated mass of human goo.

            For this semester, it was back to Mind Performance Hacks. After learning the twenty-two names on my class roster in about five minutes using a memory palace and celebrities with the same names—without a single rehearsal—I decided I might want to look into these mnemonics after all. First, I memorized a Phillip Larkin poem (a day and a half), then fifteen of Arthur Aaron’s questions (five minutes), then the geological time scale as it’s printed in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (forty-five minutes). I’ve had mixed success (mixed failure) using memory palaces at work. I beat my record of eleven by correctly encoding thirteen orders and matching them to the proper positions at the table. But I’ve also botched a couple six and eight-tops. Apparently, the new technique is interfering with old ones I didn’t even know I was using.

            But according to Mind Hacks there’s yet another level beyond memory palaces. Before committing to the Dominic System or the Major System, though, I was anxious to read something I’d come across while browsing Amazon. In one of those bizarre coincidences Jungians and New Agers read signs into, tech writer Joshua Foer was publishing a book just as I was deciding to do further research. In a blurb on the back cover of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, science writer Jonah Lehrer claims Foer’s book “invents a new genre of nonfiction.” Foer himself calls it “participatory journalism.” But the book uncannily resembles Neil Strauss’s foray into the world of pick up artists and the resultant Horatio Alger story in The Game. In place of PUA’s, Foer encounters and gets taken under the wings of MA’s—Mental Athletes. And he undergoes a transformation from well educated, above average geeky guy to U.S. Memory Champion over the course of a year. Even though the best in this country are usually not very competitive on the world stage, Foer’s accomplishment is still absurdly impressive. Like Strauss, though, he insists at every step of the way that getting good, achieving excellence, is only a matter of training and determination. (Largely owing to his picture on the jacket, I kept thinking of Foer as Harry Potter writing about his first year at Hogwarts.)

            Strauss enjoyed the luxury of his topic’s intrinsic fascination, and to a slightly lesser extent this is true for Foer too. I have to say, though, as much as I enjoyed The Game, Moonwalking with Einstein is a much better book. Foer brings a refreshing skepticism to his analysis that’s disturbingly lacking in Strauss’s writing. (Neuro-Linguistic Programming is total bullshit.) Tony Buzan, the leader of the memory renaissance, who put on the first World Championships and is still lobbying to have his methods—most of which are not really his—implemented as part of regular class curricula, jumps from the pages of Foer’s book like a character from a Saul Bellow novel, a complete shyster who after spouting off a bunch of nonsense manages to say things that are shockingly profound and, you sense, completely true. We discover too that the mnemonists’ world has an analog to the magic world’s Uri Geller, a guy who uses the standard repertoire of tricks but claims he’s using nothing but his natural gifts. If you’ve seen the documentary Brainman, you know who he’s talking about.

            Foer is better too at fleshing out some of the underlying philosophical issues. While it’s true The Game explores the theme of questioning the ultimate worth of mastery by describing how it turns a lot of guys into unsavory characters, Strauss’s self-promotion drowns out any meaningful examination of the issue. How could a guy’s life be derailed by his efforts to master the skills involved in seducing a woman? (Sounds like a great idea for a novel—stay tuned.) Foer does better at making the question explicit and trying to work out some answers. Will enhanced memory mean greater wisdom? Does “elaborative encoding” detract from the meaning of what’s being memorized? What does it mean that so many of these mnemonic enthusiasts are, as Foer describes, people who are “indistinguishable from those” you’d find at a “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert”? (189). And what role should memory palaces play in education?

            I’m glad I read the book before committing to my Dominic System because it turns out it’s been tweaked. The idea is to come up with a person performing some action for every two-digit combination. Ozzy Osborne is my 00, and he’s biting the head off a bat. But now competitive mnemonists are using the PAO system, which means person action object. My 00 still works but several others I’d come up with don’t. With three bits of information for every two-digit number, you can memorize one image for every six digits. MA’s memorize multiple decks of cards by putting these images in memory palaces. Anyway, now I can get back to creating my personal image inventory, which incidentally is really hard. Try coming up with a hundred distinct and easily recognizable actions even without attaching them to people. And what will I do with it when I’m done? Well, there are a lot of things I want to memorize as scaffolds for future learning: the periodic table, a more detailed and up-to-date geological timescale, maybe some U.S. history, etc. But I have to keep in mind Foer’s book is great because throughout the process of writing it he continued to be a science writer and never fully identified himself as a mnemonist. I too am a writer first. Memorizing is a great first step to learning, but it’s not the ultimate one.