The Lost Art Of Memorization


The Art Of Memorization goes back to the orators of Classical times, including, so Joshua Foer informs us in Moonwalking With Einstein, Themistocles of Athens and the great orators of Roman times. Our author calls the Art Of Memorization a “lost tradition” which disappeared centuries ago. Once print arrived, the page could remember stuff for you. Same today with computers. We no longer even have to remember where information is kept– Google will retrieve it for us even if we have no idea where it is.

“Our culture is an edifice built on externalized memories,” Foer. 

One great advantage of externalized memory, is that it’s easier to pass-on information, and much more of it, to others through time and space. Not only is this a beautiful thing in the linear, but the spread of knowledge appears to generate expanding net of exponential returns… with new ideas built on and inspired by earlier ones. Just think, says Foer, of all the ideas which have been lost through the centuries because they have been forgotten, all the connections and webs of connections which never came into being among (lost) ideas. By recording our ideas, we greatly increase the level of The Well Of Collective Consciousness from which we can draw.

Merely as one simple example, since I’ve started this blog, I’ve discovered a new superhero, Ernst Mach, and his recorded thoughts have inspired and empowered me when it comes to criticizing the Religion Of The Quantum and the lack of convincing evidence to support the Big Bang (you can now find MULTIPLE articles upon those subjects by yours truly).

Furthermore, Foer contends that the very way we think has been changed by having our memories externalized. If this is true, we may not yet have realized the full implication of life in a world built from memories of paper and silicon.

Of course, we haven’t completely lost the ability to remember things. In fact, though it doesn’t always feel like it, we remember most important things most of the time… from where we live to the person we’ve married to the names of our children (though we may not always put the right name to the right offspring in a particular instance!).

For unknown reasons, the human brain– pretty much across the board– is capable of placing into short-term memory up to seven pieces of data at a time. After spending some time in the short-term memory, the seven data-pieces will either be forgotten, or moved into memory storage of longer duration. If the memory makes it over into the longer term memories, then it seems to stay there, and its future usefulness depends not on its presence in the mind but on our ability to RECALL it.

We can remember more than seven individual items by the trick of “chunking.” Chunking is when we group multiple data-pieces together into something perceived as a unity. For example, perhaps a certain set of 26 symbols could be said to make up one unity called an “alphabet.” In terms of memorization, a unity created by chunking counts as ONE piece of data (as long as the chunk is true and solid). An example of chunking might be if we were told to memorize and be able to later recite the following list: 1) the alphabet, 2) the days of the week, 3) the months of the year, 4) the numbers from one to one-hundred inclusive, and 5) the American presidents since Nixon. For those of us who have these lists pre-chunked, as it were, this would be a cinch!– though the data to be recalled would contain more than 150 items, we really only have to remember 5 things… the chunks.

The general rule is, the more we can chunk, the more we can memorize.

Chunking is basically what the expert memorists in Foer’s book are doing when they group their bizarre, memory-aiding images together.

Chunking, in a way, is also what is going on when an expert chessplayer is playing chess. He is not always having to calculate-out four or six or more moves ahead. He is recognizing patterns (a form of “chunk”) on the board, and recalling from study and play, which situations these patterns are likely to lead to.

I even contend that intuition is chunking… For instance, if we are introduced to a man, we may recognize in this person an array of physical and verbal clues which register to us as a pattern of “shady” or “dangerous” or “untrustworthy.” Personally, the longer I live, the more and more I trust my intuition in these matters.

One thing I haven’t talked about yet in this or in my other post on Moonwalking With Einstein is the practice– or rather, the type and style of practice– it takes to become good at using visualizations to improve one’s memory. Like any self-improvement attempt, improving one’s memory is a “skill acquisition” activity.

Skill Acquisition has been studied in-depth, and it turns out that the secret to becoming an expert in something is not so secret after all– it takes a lot of practice. Lots and lots of practice. Becoming an expert in any field, in fact, will usually require thousands of hours of practice. And not just practice, Foer informs us, but a very focused, intense, uncomfortable– even draining– sort of practice. You can’t just go through the motions when you want to improve your skills to an above-mediocre level. You must always be pushing yourself past your comfort zone. No pain, no gain. This goes for everything from bodybuilding to playing the violin. This often translates into pushing yourself 10 to 20% harder in practice than what you can comfortably do.

Once we reach a certain skill level– something, say, adequate, maybe even superior, but not something of an expert or mastercraftsman level– it’s all too easy to shift into auto-pilot during a practice session. But if you really want to keep improving, in whatever endeavor you have chosen, you can never allow your auto-pilot to kick in. You must catch yourself when you start going through the motions, and you must force yourself to always– always– be very alert and focused as to what you are doing in practice, always struggling to push it farther. “By it’s nature,” says Foer, the right sort of practice, “must be hard.”

HOW you practice is much more important that HOW MUCH you practice.

Those who become experts in any field do the following three things: 1) focus on technique, 2) set achievable goals and orient their practice around achieving those goals, and 3) seek out constant and immediate feedback as to their progress.

This third step, though often missing from a practice or workout, is essential. Feedback allows people to better spot their mistakes and shortcomings and learn from them. This is precisely what enables us to escape from those inevitable plateaus that plague every self-improver and keep climbing.

Foer quotes Bruce Lee: “There are no limits. Only plateaus.”


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