I picked up this book with the slight hope that it might help me remember names of people I meet or where I put my reading glasses, but it isn’t quite that type of book. The subtitle of this book “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” isn’t quite accurate, it’s really an interesting book about the science of how our brains remember and the art of remembering certain things. Foer attends the 2005 USA Memory Championship for the purpose of writing a piece for Slate. The championship includes five events: memorizing faces and names, memorizing a list of 300 random words, five minutes to memorize a page of random digits, five minutes to learn the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards, and memorizing a fifty-line poem. Foer initially thinks that the winners have different brains than the rest of us. During the championship he chats with a British memory master who tells him that photographic memory is a myth and that anyone can develop a stronger memory using the right techniques including himself. Foer takes the challenge and trains for a year with the intention of winning the 2006 USA Memory Championship.
Foer does a lot of research along the way, starting with the ancient “memory palace” technique of placing memories in a particular structure and traveling through that structure to remember each thing placed in it. He reminds us that memory used to be a very important tool. Societies with oral traditions memorized stories and songs to pass on to the next generation. Socrates worried that writing was a threat to memory, but that’s nothing compared to computers, smartphones and all the devices we now have to outsource our memory. How many phone numbers do you know by heart? Whose birthdays do you remember? Memorizing is clearly becoming a lost art.
During the course of the year Foer researches the cases of individuals with extraordinary memories, and those with no memory at all. He hangs out with European memory masters to learn their techniques. These guys are pretty weird to say the least, but amusing as well. From them he learns to create vivid, lurid and absurd images, to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, anything to make things more memorable. Foer goes all in on the challenge. He practices in his parents’ basement with earmuffs and blacked out glasses with pinholes in the center to avoid distractions. He explains the techniques he uses pretty well, although some seemed to be more work than they were worth. The techniques for memorizing numbers seemed especially difficult. The book ends with a description of how he does in the 2006 competition. While reading this book hasn’t inspired me to start memorizing long lists of words or numbers, the technique for remembering names comes in handy, and I still have the best of intentions to memorize a poem some time soon.