Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is a book that’s been in my Audible queue for quite some time. My interest in the topic of the science of memory was initially triggered by learning about the memory palace technique on a speed reading for dyslexics course. I struggle with working memory. It is one of the low points in my spiky profile. I found the technique of anchoring arbitrary data to visual references powerful but hard work.
My intrigue diminished, possibly with the self-doubt that as a dyslexic/dyspraxic I wasn’t well tuned to making the most of the techniques like memory palaces to remember things. Besides, I’ve developed a number of coping strategies (covered in what has turned out to be my most popular blog post) so perhaps it’s something I don’t need. Why use a memory palace to remember things when it’s less effort to write a shopping list or use a Bullet journal. The neurodiverse are good at self-doubt and making do.
This self-doubt said happily, if incongruently, alongside my beliefs in neuroplasticity and my continual advocacy for self-improvement. That was until listing to the CodPast and hearing Sean Douglas remember a whole pack of playing cards. Inspired I added Moonwalking with Einstein to my playlist and set to find out more about how the memory works.
This is not an instructional book. It does make reference to a number of the techniques but it does not provide a step by step guide. It is a fascinating look at the history of memory and what it takes to hone this skill. There were a number of stories in the book that resonated with me. Every minute of listening was worth it especially for the punch line at the end (spoiler alert below).
Chapter 1 got the book off to a great start with many references to Tony Buzan of mind mapping fame. This is familiar ground as mind mapping is a tool of choice for many dyslexics as a way to organise thoughts. Buzan’s remarks that schools focus on pouring information in but don’t teach how to remember stuck a chord. I think we teach too little about how to learn. It was not until I entered management I discovered the concept of learning styles. Tim Ferriss’s teachings aside (I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea) my BSAC SCUBA diving instructor training has been the most comprehensive instruction I have had on how to learn and how to teach. Both the management training and the SCUBA instructor training approach the topic of learning from the perspective of how to help others learn. Given the years I’ve spent in school, college and university it’s odd that no one ever taught me how to learn.
I’ve blogged before on the unintended consequences of assistive technology. The printing press enabled stories that had been passed down through generations to be captured in print. In the process, they externalised the requirement to remember and consequently diminished the importance of maintaining an internal memory. In the time of the Romans, a good memory was a prized attribute. Simonides developed a technique called the method of loci which is what we now call a memory palace.
Memory fades over time. 50% of what we capture we forget in the first hour, a further 10% is lost by the end of the day. This is likely to be a physical phenomenon of neuron atrophy as the brain re-jigs its connections to strengthen and speed up the important pathways.
Humans do not have a perfect memory with a recall problem. The human memory is not like a photograph into which we can look deeper and see the finer details. Nore is it like a hard drive, not even a hard drive with a missing index. Human memory is not searchable, it is accessed through cues. The brain is not linear but associative. This was illustrated by the baker/Baker paradox. If I tell you my name is Baker, you will likely forget. If I tell you I am a baker you will likely remember. This may appear odd as it is exactly the same about of data that needs to be stored and recalled. The name Baker though is somewhat abstract. The profession of baker triggers associations with flour and ovens, crispy bread, sweet treats and the smell of burnt toast. These links help to bond the fact and aid recollection.
K Erickson of the Human Performance Lab is a firm believer that memory is a learned skill, not a natural ability. The skilled memory theory says memory champions are made not born. Erickson studied experts and found it takes about 10,000 hours of training to become an expert. Experts see the world differently and they notice things other people do not notice. By encoding information differently experts can get past the magical number 7 (the limit of short term memory).
It’s worth a digression here. It’s widely accepted that 7 is a magical limit for working memory. I’ve also seen it expressed at 5 +/-2. As I said at the start my working memory is well below average. In a dyslexia assessment, this is measured with a digit span test. The assessor reads a string of numbers and the candidate tries to recall them. Going forwards I didn’t do too bad as I used a hack. On reading the Dyslexic Advantage I even discovered this hack has a name: the phonological loop. I repeated the sequence of numbers with the voice in my head and added each new number to the end of the list. So long as I didn;t get in a muddle I could do OK on repeating in sequence. The next exercise was to repeat the numbers in reverse order. This is what got me my low score as my brain could not process it. The phonological loop got muddled, my working memory got overloaded and I might be able to grasp at 2 or 3 numbers but with no context of the sequence. I think with what I have learned from this book I could now score much better but this raises questions of if it is effectively cheating the test of working memory of highlighting a shortcoming in the assessment technique.
Back to the experts: these people can encode information in their expert domain in bigger chunks. In addition, within their domain, they have a lot more related context with which to assist in creating links (remember Baker/baker). Humans are not very good at remembering isolated facts because we remember things in context (compare with episodic memory and semantic memory in the Dyslexic Advantage). This chunking becomes an unconscious competence and the expert may not even know how they remember what they do or how they arrive at snap decisions based on an unconscious evaluation of numerous aspects without any of them coming front of mind. Incidentally, this can make experts bad teachers.
Foer argues there are two types of memory: declarative and non-declarative. Explicit and implicit if you prefer. Declarative memories are the ones you know you remember. Non-declarative memories are unconscious memories like the movements required to walk or ride a bike. Non-declarative memory does not pass through the hippocampus (working memory). This opens up the possibility of learning really complicated things while still having a rubbish working memory.
The declarative memory is further divided into semantic and episodic and both use different areas of the brain. Many dyslexics have really strong episodic memories (especially those that go on to be authors and filmmakers). Conversely may dyslexics struggle with semantic memory. This miss-match in memory capability can lead others to believe that we don;t really struggle with memory.
Sleep plays a powerful role in consolidating and structuring memory. I’d also argue that sleep plays a key part in the ability to sustain attention which is a key part of remembering things.
Step into my memory palace
The memory palace is an elaborate encoding device to provide context and relationships to unrelated things. It is a technique to exploit the Baker/baker paradox.
Our brains were forged in a different time. Our brains evolved during hunter-gathering times. The brain is not equally well suited to remembering different types of information. The brain is good at remembering spatial information (where things are) and at spotting things that are out of place. Linking something unstructured (your shopping list) to something strongly structured that you know well (the walk to the shops) provides the cues needed to access memories. I do wonder if my early attempts with a memory palace failed because we were taught with an illustrative room, rather than I room I actually knew.
Incidentally the word topic derives from the Greek for place because things were remembered with the method of loci. The topics of a speech quite literally were places on a map.
Other Memory Aids
A memory place is not the only way to overlay a structure onto random data. Childen learn the alphabet through song as the rhythm provides a structure. A superimposed structure offers a route to access memories.
Some things, like names, don’t offer much to impose a structure over. Here is it time to invoke a multi-sensory approach to remembering. Whilst some names may segue nicely into a sound or a smell this is more likely to be visual. The tip here is to get as funny, bizarre or lewd as possible as these things trigger memories.
Person Action Object is a chunking technique and is often used to remember playing cards. Using PAO 52 cards can be chunked into 18 images of a person doing something to an object.
The OK Plateau
The OK plateau happens with all acquired skills. Once you are good enough at a skill you stop getting better. When learning there is a cognitive stage, an associative stage and finally an autonomous stage. The brain is a hugely resource intensive organ so mental automation was key to human survival. However, automation prevents further learning. For improvement, you need deliberate practice. You need to proactive what you are bad at (not what you are comfortable with). There is a weak correlation between length of practice and proficiency unless you practice failing and you need continual feedback. Those 10,000 hours will get you nowhere unless you keep trying to push the boundaries. If you want to type faster then type 20% faster until you can accurately do it and then speed up again.
Many barriers are phycological, not physiological. The 4-minute mile was unbreakable until the record fell. Now with training a 4-minute mile is an attainable target for many people.
The Memory Paradox
Technologies like phone speed dial, day planners, GPS and more have reduced the need to remember things. But what impact does this have on cultural literacy? Should everyone have a basic awareness of some core set of facts without needing to reach for google? Memorising is part of learning. Innovation is linked to inventory – joining of ideas. concepts and memories. Creativity can be considered the remembering of the future. What happens as we continue to diminish the need to remember? In Romain times leaders could remember vast amounts of information in their memory palaces but the printing press killed that. Now most people don’t know their spouse’s mobile number.
When it takes less effort to externalise a memory (route to a location, phone number on speed dial, what the 2pm appointment is) why invest cognitive power in committing it to the grey cells? A memory palace required maintenance and if used for things like shopping lists it also needs clearing out. Why go to this effort if you have a notes app on your phone? Because we perceive the world based on how we remember. Our experience of the passing of time relates to the richness of what we remember. If you live a dull life with nothing memorable it will feel like a short time.
The Punch Line
Rather than work out how to do a show/hide spoiler alert I’ll not reveal how Joshua performed int he international and Americal memory championships. Using the techniques outlined in the book he developed a phenomenal memory. And yet he still managed to take the tube home one night only to arrive home and recall he had driven and consequently left his car.