How the Memory Champs Do It

In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 Joshua Foer describes the memory techniques that memory champions use and that he emulated in his preparation for participation in the U.S. Memory Championships. A familiarity with mnemonic techniques or with the postings under the Healthymemory Blog category “Mnemonic Techniques” would be helpful in understanding these techniques.

To become a Grand Master of Memory, the following requirements must be met:

Memorize a list of 1,000 random digits in one hour.

Memorize the precise order of ten shuffled decks of cards in one hour.

Memorize the order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.

Memory competitions involve additional tasks such as remembering lists of words, the names of pictures of individuals, and poems.

I was surprised by the prominent role that the Method of Loci (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Memory of Loci”, it was the first posting in this category so consequently it is at the bottom of the “Mnemonic Techniques” posts) played. They use the strategy of creating what they term “memory palaces.” A memory palace could be your home. You would place items you wanted to be remembered in different locations in your house and form a mental image of the object in specific locations. When it came time to recall, you would simply take a mental walk through your home and see the images of the different items as you examined the part of the house in which you had placed them. Obviously a memory palace need not be a palace or even indoors. You could take a mental walk in a familiar park forming mental images of the items you wanted to remember in different locations throughout the park. These memory experts use an extraordinary number of these memory palaces. I found it interesting that about a week before an important competition, they would mentally clean out these memory palaces from the items they had placed there so they would not be unwanted intrusions in the memory competitions. I did find this reliance on the method of loci surprising. I usually present this method as a matter of historical interest. For myself, I’ve found numeric pegwords more useful for remembering lists of items. This requires having a system for recoding numbers (see the blog posts “Remembering Numbers,” “More On Remembering Numbers,” “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.” I’ve used numeric pegwords developed using these techniques in lieu of the loci provided by memory palaces. I’ve found this more convenient, and you can recall the precise numerical order of any item without having to take a mental walk through some memory palace. Regarding remembering numbers, Foer credits Johann Winkelmann for developing this technique known as the “Major System” around 1648. My references (see Blog Post “Remembering Numbers” credits Pierre Hergione (1540-1643) a French mathematician and astronomer with eventing the technique. It is possible that they developed their systems independently, but the systems appear to be identical, Perhaps Winkelmann plagiarized the system or was improperly credited with its development.

The Person Action Object (PAO), Einstein Walking on the Moon for example, is another technique, although the fundamental forming of mental images is central to all mnemonic techniques. These images need to be vivid. Bizarre and/or obscene images can be quite effective. I found it curious that the PAO system was used to remember numbers. For example, Frank Sinatra might be used for 34. The number 13 could be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. And 79 could be Superman. So 791334 could become an image of Superman kicking a soccer ball into Frank Sinatra. So unique arbitrary images are used for these number. A unique PAO image is developed for each number from 0 t0 99 is created. Advanced mnemonists might generate unique PAO images from 0 to 999. Why they do this rather than relying on the Perionne or “Major System” is beyond me. Perhaps they want an independent system to avoid confusion. I don’t know. But compared to these guys, I’m a village idiot.

What is interesting is the time needed to become proficient enough in these techniques to compete in a world championship and have any chance of winning. Foer practiced about four hours a day. He also used earplugs and goggles that restricted his field of view to focus his attention. He employed what is termed deliberate practice where the focus was on remediating errors and increasing speed and proficiency. So when a performance plateau is hit one needs to challenge oneself by practicing failing and putting onesself in the mind of someone more accomplished with the task. One needs to maintain some conscious control to improve and not remain on autopilot. Actually four hours a day is a reasonable amount of time to spend in an activity at which you hope to be expert. It is remarkable that Foer was able to achieve the proficiency that he did in what was a little less than a year.

Although it takes an extraordinary amount of commitment to be able to compete on a national or world level, it does not take that much time to benefit from mnemonic techniques. Usually in a simple experiment where one group of people is given a memory technique and another group is not, the benefit of the memory technique is quite apparent. To achieve some immediate benefit should not take much effort. The greater the proficiency desired, the greater the effort that needs to be extended. The techniques presented in this Healthymemory Blog should be quite helpful. And since they require creativity, imagination, and recoding, and that they force you to attend and to used both hemispheres of your brain, they should provide helpful mental workouts.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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6 Responses to “How the Memory Champs Do It”

  1. zorgor Says:

    I just read the same book and have recently started using a memory palace for my to-do list. I’m pleased that so far it’s worked well! I found your blog googling for a way to clean out a memory palace. Do you know of any ways to do this? All I’ve found so far, also from the same book, is to walk the loci and “mentally erase” items no longer needed. So today I’m trying this, but since I can still recall old images at will, even when they do not appear spontaneously and cause confusion, I’m not sure how well ‘erasing’ will work…

  2. healthymemory Says:

    I would recommend to continue to do the mental erasing. Although you will not necessarily forget, those items should not interfere with the learning of new items. In the future there will be a blog post on intentional forgetting.

  3. healthymemory Says:

    Please be patient. There will be about three intervening posts.

  4. cafe verde extracto Says:

    Wow, this article is fastidious, my younger sister is analyzing these
    things, therefore I am going to tell her.

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