May 082011

When I was in high school, I happened upon a book at my local library called “Page-a-Minute Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne. Harry Lorayne is a mentalist – one of those magicians who would do mental tricks like asking you to pick a number and then figuring out what it is, or feats of “telepathy” where he would ask you a few simple questions and then from there be able to figure out everything about you (it’s called cold reading). One of Lorayne’s specialty was in amazing feats of memory – being introduced to 50 people and their life stories and after an hour recalling every single detail about them. Or being shown a shuffled deck of cards and being able to recall their order – backwards. For a teenager going to through school studying and trying to learn and memorize a million different things at once, this seemed like a godsend. I read the book, and learned some of the techniques, techniques that I’d later learn are called mnemonics. I applied some of them to my classes, some subjects better than others, and made some use of them. They held a lot of promise, and if I had pursued the matter further, I’d have gotten quite good at it. But, as with any other skill that isn’t diligently practiced continuously, I didn’t do that and the skill slipped away. I made some half-hearted effort to revive it in my college days, but I was struggling though engineering classes and problem sets and frankly couldn’t figure out a way to make them work for me.

Now, some 15-20 years later (!!) I’m about to have a son and perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by fate, I recently came across a book called “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. I couldn’t put down, and I read the thing in three days. The author was a freelance science journalist who one day decided to cover the US National Memory Championships and by doing so, became exposed to the esoteric world of “mental athletes.” Not as glamorous as physical athletes, but nonetheless equally impressive (in my not-so-humble opinion). The book was essentially about how Foer went from journalist, to participatory chronicler, to actually winning the event and becoming the US Memory Champion – all in the span of one year. In the book he talks about his training, and how we underwent “deliberate practice” (a topic I intend to write about in a later post) to progressively improve and enhance his skillset. He writes about how we mastered the “method of loci,” the “major system,” amongst many others – all part of the mnemonist’s toolbox and arsenal. And, incidentally, all things that I had once learned once upon a time from Harry Lorayne. But more importantly, Foer provides a little history to what he calls the “art of memory.”

Essentially, before the advent of cloud computing, smartphones, internet and computers, even before the invention of the printing press, all books, all written material had to be created and copied by hand. In that age, books and scrolls were expensive and difficult to produce, and hard to get at. You couldn’t just look something up if you didn’t know it on the Web, or at your local library. Maybe if you were lucky you got your hands on a book that maybe contained the information you needed, and that book was under lock and key, in a castle somewhere. If you read it, then you had better remember what you read because chances were that you would never get to see that book again. But wait, why even start there, let’s go back to a time before writing. How was information passed on, preserved? It was done orally, and the only repository of knowledge was the thing between your ears. In the old days, people had to be good at memorizing things.

So why am I writing about all this and why is this relevant to being a good dad? Well, one of the reasons that I stopped practicing the various memory techniques was because they seemed to me, at the time, to be too esoteric. They were useful to memorizing lists of information, or perhaps at learning to memorize cards or numbers or faces and names. But how would this be useful for me in memorizing the difference between alkenes and alkanes, or how to solve a differential equation? I couldn’t see (or maybe I should say that I didn’t try hard enough to see) how I could use these memory tricks to learn all the other hard stuff I was doing in school, so I stopped. But after having read Joshua Foer’s book, I am seeing these techniques in a different light. Roman senators used these techniques to memorize reams of details when giving speeches. Caesar potentially used it to memorize the names of all the soldiers in his Legions. Medieval scholars used similar methods to memorize the entire bible and works by classical authors. Back in the day, this was how you studied. Even as recent as the revolutionary times, I recall reading about the lives of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and how they, as “learned men”, were able to recall and recite quotes and passages from great works of their day. I’ve always been impressed by my friends who had such good memories and such grasp of a material that they were able to recite, sometimes word for word, what was said in a book. I had always chalked it up to natural good memory, and I was personally satisfied with just recalling the gist of what I had read. But that was because I had forgotten about what I myself had studied in high school, and I had neglected to truly apply all of it to creating retained and recalled knowledge for myself using these techniques. Something that I now know, thanks to Foer’s book, is not only possible, but was the norm before the modern era.

So again, why am I writing about this? I think this is a lost art, an art that deserves to be found again and deserves to be placed in the top ten of the things we teach our children. How I wish I had known this in elementary school when I had to memorize the capitals of the states, Spanish vocabulary, and the nitrogen cycle. And elementary school is when we need to be teaching these techniques to kids – when they are happy to use their imagination to do “boring” school work, when much of their time is spent in learning facts, and when they are young enough that once they’ve ingrained the techniques into their bones they can then figure out on their own how to apply them to the more complex facts and problem solving that they will be expected to pick up as they get older. But any age would do. This stuff is useful and good for even the Dads to use in our work and home lives. We want and expect our kids to learn so much stuff, but rarely do we actually teach them how to learn. I’m not saying that these mnemonics are the end all and be all for better learning. But it’s a damn good start.

I fully intend to teach my son these methods. I will begin by boning up on them myself – it would be a poor teacher that couldn’t do what he was teaching. I am going to revisit my Harry Lorayne, my Tony Buzan, and a dozen other memory and mental skill experts whose books I’ve collected over the years but didn’t really absorb. Well, I’m going to go over them again and absorb them this time. Absorb them with a purpose in that I am going to try to convert them into methods that work for me, and in ways that would work for my son. So that by the time he is old enough to learn them, I will have figure out a way to teach it to him. And I’ll chronicle this on this website. Wish me luck.


  One Response to “The Art of Memory”

  1. […] Master the Major System.  In a previous post I mentioned mnemonics and memory training in general.  In it, I made a promise that I’d relearn the art of memory and teach it to Nathan when he […]

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