Published on October 4th, 2013 | by Dan Walsh2
Ancient Secrets To Remember Everything
I have bad news for you. Photographic memories are a myth. They don’t exist. I know, I’m bummed too. I’ve spent at least 9 birthday wishes on it. What a waste. But I have some excellent news that should soften the blow. It is possible with enough practice for anyone to have savant-like powers of memorization. You could memorize Dante’s Inferno in Italian, all 57,000 words in the Oxford English-Chinese dictionary, or even the order of a deck of playing cards. Yes, you could be the rain man, but without the unfortunate social side affects.
Ok, now you probably want to know how. The answer is to use semi-forgotten (irony!) techniques developed by the ancient Greeks, specifically one called the memory palace. I first learned of memory palaces and the expansive capabilities of human memory from an article by Josh Foer called Secrets of a Mind Gamer. He became the U.S. speed cards record holder in 2006 after memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in one minute and forty seconds. He accomplished this after only a year of casual training under the tutelage of Ed Cooke, a competitor he met while writing an article about the championship in 2005.
Cooke and all the other mental athletes I met kept insisting that anyone could do what they do. It was simply a matter of learning to “think in more memorable ways,” using a set of mnemonic techniques almost all of which were invented in ancient Greece.
The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos developed the memory palace technique after he was the sole survivor of a tragic banquet hall collapse.
When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression.
He surmised that the human brain is better at remembering certain kinds of information, like location, than it is at remembering items like names and numbers. Memories could therefore be reinforced by converting hard-to-remember facts into locations.
He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.
Josh’s tale is an entertaining read and a remarkable example of the untapped potential in all of us. I also highly recommend his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, which is the full account of his journey and just so happens to be one of our October/November Book Club selections.
Image Credit: Marco Grob for the New York Times