Memories: Science or Art?

The mysteries of the mind and memories have always enthralled me. There is something surreal about trying to understand the brain and the mind using the brain itself. To me, it resembles an infinite recursion. Will we ever truly understand this fantastic creation of nature?

This book, Moonwalking with Einstein, delves into one specific aspect of our mind, the memories. The book explores what memories are and tries to understand how they are stored. More importantly, can we improve our memories? The short answer, yes. The long answer, it’s complicated.

Joshua Foer presents his journey from a recent college graduate working as a journalist living with his parents to winning the US Nation Memory Championship. Contrary to my expectations, he did not try to sell memory improvement techniques and claim them to be the elixir to becoming a genius. I found his presentation organic.

The story starts with exploring people living with pathological conditions that affect their mental abilities, making them superhumans who seem to remember everything and can visualize, taste, and smell words to someone who can’t even remember the last few seconds of their life. These examples really show how incredible the brain is, and slight deviations can result in prodigious changes.

The following chapters present the training journey of Joshua from a average person, like you and me, to someone good enough to compete in memory competitions. And win! These chapters were quite entertaining to read. Imagine a man in his twenties wearing strange goggles in a basement filled with random digits strewn around. Quite comical, right. Other than the eccentricity of this visual image, I found his journey motivating. Although this being just a single data point, it bolsters the message that “memory can be improved.” The only cache being, just like any other skill, requires deliberate practice and hard work.

To improve your ability to remember things, many techniques are mentioned. Though, this book is not a manual on how to improve your memory and how to practice. One of the most popular techniques is the Memory Palace. If you are familiar with Sherlock Holmes, I am pretty sure you have come across this term before. The crux of the Memory Palace is that you imagine a building (your home, office, anything with rooms) that you are pretty familiar with. To remember a list of items or anything else, you store each item at distinct locations. Try to be as imaginative and quirky as possible with how you are representing each item. For example, say you want to remember to buy Tiger Bread. You can store this item in your Memory Palace as “a tiger stroking a loaf of bread” under the dining table. Finally, when you want to recall your list of items, you simply walk through your Memory Palace and observe the bizarre characters and activities happening along your path! This is both science and art. The technique itself arises from our scientific understanding of the brain and mind but requires artistic vividness to plant the memories in our palace.

On paper, these memory techniques seem simple and easy. They might be simple, but without diligent practice, they won’t do you much good. In my opinion, I believe that in the current modern world, there is no need to remember your boring lists or the soliloquy of Macbeth, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” We can easily store these and recall them later when we went to. But how frequently do we do that? I keep storing information on my computer without any good way of recalling them. It reaches such an extent that I even forgot I had stored it in the first place! Forget retrieving it! I think we should strive to remember as much as possible and not irresponsibly rely on technology for everything. Maybe in the future, we will truly mesh the boundary between technology and our organic bodies. Still, until then, it is probably a good idea to keep exercising your brain.

Do I wish to recall quotes or excerpts from poems at the drop of a hat or memorize 10 randomly shuffled decks of cards in under an hour? Of course! Who wouldn’t? I can imagine how much fun I can have annoying my friends when I bring up arcane quotes in the middle of a conversation. But would I want to put in the effort? Spend hours each day to perfect my Memory Palace construction skills? I probably would not. To me, it seems too much effort for minimal gains outside of a memory competition. I could probably spend that time learning something else that I find more important.

After reading Joshua’s journey and the other mental athletes interviewed in the book, I have a newfound respect for them. Recalling the agonizing hours of cramming textbook chapters and notes before my college exams makes me shudder to imagine the type of training these mental warriors go through. Maybe if I knew these techniques, I wouldn’t have needed to cram in despair?

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