What's it about?
A major thread of the book is Foer analysing the role of memory through human history. Much of the techniques he learns and utilises were commonplace in the ancient world, where many of them are described. Indeed, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Rhetorica_ad_Herennium/home.html) is the classic text for mental athletes to start learning about some of these techniques. Some authors of antiquity felt that the techniques were so well known that they have commented in their own writings that they won't even waste paper recounting them. Even in more modern history ‘rote learning’ was a part of standard education that students were expected to undertake (often with unpleasant associations). Foer notes that the externalisation of memory through our technology has meant that this is now much less important. Firstly, writing made conservation of knowledge in a physical form possible, then the printing press made such information much more widely available. Finally, we now have the magic of the internet where there is the entire history of human knowledge just a few keystrokes away. The question therefore becomes, quite rightly, why bother to remember so much? Indeed, rote learning has become a taboo of modern education with the increasing recognition that it is the higher level information processing that is important rather than simple memorization of facts. The skills we now need are more related to the abilities to navigate this world of immeasurable external memory rather than the laborious process of creating precarious internal memories.
Another part of his analysis was to explore the unusual cases of some people with incredible natural memory, and those with no memory. A famous case from the scientific literature is a journalist known as S who amazed psychologists with his near perfect ability to remember, such as recalling a sequence of numbers that he had been told just the once months previously. Interestingly, S was a synesthete, a condition where there is some degree of overlapping of the senses. As such, to him numbers had additional characteristics like shape and colour, which is probably highly relevant for his abilities (as well shall look at). In contrast, the patient EP had suffered from a case of HSV (herpes simplex virus) encephalitis that had left unusually symmetrical destruction of his medial temporal lobes, including both his hippocampal regions. The result was profound retrograde and anterograde amnesia; an inability to create new memories or recall old ones. Thus, he was stuck in time in a period in his early adulthood (where there was some memory preservation). It was interesting to note that he was still able to create some non-declarative memories (for instance, unconsciously navigate his neighbourhood) but not much more. The interesting point is how Foer highlights the converse interpretations of these conditions. Whilst we may envy the perfect memory of S, he notes how he was in some ways disabled by his condition. His ability to perform higher level processing was handicapped by his literal interpretation of the world. Because of the intense sensory interactions between concepts, abstract ideas were very hard for him to comprehend. Indeed, Foer notices that he was unable to really function as an effective journalist because of this. In contrast, whilst we may feel that EP was terribly unlucky because of his injury (and he certainly is in many ways) Foer also notes how contented he is. He comments that he may have actually achieved the Buddhist goal of being perfectly in the present moment, in his case because he has no other tense within which he can be. Both cases highlight the importance of having an effective memory and some of the ways that it could significantly affect our lives. By this point in the story Foer has been well and truly intrigued by the journey that he has started on and begun to get deeply engaged in developing the skills of professional mnemonists.
There are, unsurprisingly, a number of pearls and pitfalls to this. The most obvious is to use techniques that make the images you choose more memorable. As has been noted for centuries, the more lewd and/or shocking such images are, the better that they stick. They have to be something out of the ordinary to capture your interest. Obviously they also need to be connected to the thing that you are trying to remember, and this is where a good degree of creativity needs to come in. This is harder for more abstract concepts, but can still be done. The most advanced mnemonists have come up with very advanced systems for memorising things such as numbers and cards. The person-action-object (PAO) system is one such technique for long numbers. Every double figure number (00 to 99) is given a very clear mental image of a person doing an action with an object. When it comes to remembering numbers, these can be combined. For instance, with a 6 digit number you take the person of the first two digits, the action of the second and the object of the third. This creates a unique image in your mind which can easily be translated back into a 6 digit number. This allows the ‘mental athletes’ to store huge lengths of numbers in their head, all encoded in such pictures. The obvious challenge is the preparatory effort to learn this new language of images; 99 unique PAO characters is no small undertaking, especially as they need to be known intimately. This is a major barrier to some of the higher level memory abilities, although not necessarily the underlying concept. Indeed, it is the clarity of visualisation that seems relevant and the connection that can be made to the desired learning material is a feature of creativity rather than effort. Admittedly the bespoke language of the mnemonists is a major advantage for their specific categories, but unless you are going to be memorising packs of cards or long random number lists then it probably is not that relevant.
I do buy into this and think that there is some applicability to medicine. Admittedly, I am not sure whether the significant efforts that have been applied to be able to learn a pack of cards or a string of random numbers has any role, but the underlying principles seem relevant. Most of my retention of important facts has been achieved using a spaced repetition approach with only a single trial of a memory palace (the drug causes of anticholinergic syndrome, since you were wondering). My main concern is around the long term use of such techniques for practical use (as opposed to memory competitions). There seem to be a number of mnemonic tips that can be taken from here, the most obvious being to make learning highly visual and memorable, and even to try and add spatial significance if this is at all possible. I still don’t know how I might navigate a memory palace if I did want to store loads of information in this way. How would I know which room to look in for the differential diagnosis of one condition, or where to go to remember the treatment options for something else? As such, I think this is a skill that may remain purely within the realm of professional mental athletes. I will continue to reflect on ways to incorporate effective components into my regular spaced repetition, and will be increasing my home made drawings for new learning. The utilisation of real world information also seems likely to bring the visuo-spatial benefits, such as with real cases or well designed simulation. If new applications come to my attention I will try and flag them here, and please let me know if there are any uses that you think are highly valuable. I would still highly recommend the book as a read for some excellent insights into memory and learning overall, which is primarily what it is about. Foer has highlighted how our memories are actually pretty incredible and how we can probably all utilise them a bit better if we wish to. Perhaps this is the most important lesson we could take from this, especially when we are doubting our ability to remember enough exam material. Ultimately, it is probably a matter of what you want to achieve and how much effort you want to expend. I can’t imagine many of us want to become competitive mnemonists, but there are enough simple techniques to make our everyday functionality that little bit better.
Thanks for reading.
Links & References
- Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein. Penguin. 2012.
- Foer, J. Feats of memory anyone can do. TED. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6PoUg7jXsA
- Rhetorica ad Herennium. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Rhetorica_ad_Herennium/home.html
- Farnam Street. Remembering more of everything: the memory palace. https://fs.blog/the-memory-palace/#:~:text=The%20memory%20palace%20technique%20is,your%20memories%20to%20recall%20them
- Art of Memory. How to build a memory palace. https://artofmemory.com/wiki/How_to_Build_a_Memory_Palace/
- Oakley, B. Learning how to learn. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn