In his TED talk, Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do, science journalist Joshua Foer describes some amazing feats of memory. People who memorize hundreds of random members after looking at them only once. People who recall the names of dozens of strangers ,or are able to remember the exact order of the cards in 36 packs of shuffled decks of playing cards after studying them for an hour. He met all these people while covering the U.S. Memory Championships , an event most of us didn’t even know existed. Amazing as these feats are, it is even more amazing to hear that these people think of themselves as having only average memories. They are able to perform these feats because they have trained their memories using well known techniques , some of them 2,000 years old. Without intending to, Foer inadvertently proves his point that anyone can perform these feats. He practices for months, returns as a competitor the following year and WINS the championship.
While it is true we can pull off these feats of memory, is there any reason to do so ? At one time, before there were books , when knowledge was transmitted orally from generation to generation, a prodigious memory was definitely an asset. It was also useful in unexpected ways. Foer relates an anecdote about Simonides, a poet in ancient Greece , who had been hired to recite his poetry at a banquet. He had just completed his declamation and exited the hall when a violent earthquake demolished the banquet hall, killing everybody inside. The bodies were so badly mangled that they could not be identified. However, Simonides was able to reconstruct from memory exactly who had been sitting where and make it possible for the deceased to be identified and given proper funerals by their relatives.
This however is a one-off. With the invention of the printing press, photography, computers and cell phones we can look up data rather than memorize it. When we are with youngsters and there is some point no one is sure about, they simply pull out their cellphones and get the information by pressing a few buttons. Is there any point then to training your memory?
In some professions there is. In chess, the top players have studied thousands of previously played games and are able to dredge up positions from these games in the blink of an eye. They are also able to visualize the positions on the board four and five moves ahead. It is a necessity if they are to do well. Memory is also important to card players. In poker and blackjack, yes, but also in contract bridge. I remember reading a story about the late Charles Goren, an icon of bridge players everywhere. One Monday , he was relaxing around the pool with a group of friends when they decided to test his memory. They bet him that he could not remember the cards he had played over the past weekend. Goren thereupon proceeded to recreate from memory 140 deals he had played. He was able to tell them the cards each player had been dealt , how the bidding went and how the play went. Good players can perhaps recreate one such deal immediately after they have played it. Goren did it for one hundred and forty deals and was able to remember the card layouts 48 hours after they had been played. What’s even more remarkable is that he did it without any special preparation.
But bridge and chess are only two activities where prodigious memories are useful. I don’t know that there are (m)any others. In most cases it is easier to look up the data that you need. So … memorize or look it up ? There are arguments to be made either way.
On the one hand , it is not as if memorizing ” uses” up brain capacity or overburdens your brain to the extent that it affects your overall performance. The brain is very capacious and it has been found that memorization occurs in a different part of it. It is not like filling a pitcher with water until there is no space for any more. Also, the effort of memorizing data is in itself beneficial because it means you are reading the material with greater attention and presumably with greater understanding.
The major disadvantage of memorization is that you cannot afford to be less than perfect. Let’s say you memorize a phone number. If you trying to remember it and get even one digit wrong, your memorization is useless. This is a trivial example. If the material being memorized is vital information, do you dare trust your memory to remember it perfectly ? Another disadvantage is that all these feats seem to involve short term memory. I do not think these people are able to remember data indefinitely, or for more than a few days. If so, there is no point in these efforts since the data may be needed at some indeterminate point in the future.
This is not to say that training your memory is absolutely without reward. An analogy can be drawn to those who compete in spelling bees. The kids who compete in spelling bees use many of the same methods to learn and remember the spellings of words. Many , even most, of the words are arcane and will never be of use in their entire lives. Yet, in preparing for these bees, the youngsters develop good study habits and do much better at school than most of their classmates. Participating in these bees also teaches them to think on their feet, perform well under pressure and gives them confidence. Indirectly then, participating in these bees is a major reason for their success, academic and otherwise. So it is with memorization. Merely trying to memorize improves the intellect in numerous little ways and enables us to make connections which we might otherwise have missed. For instance, learning the multiplication tables by rote or being able to convert fractions to decimals to percentages in your head gives you tremendous confidence about everyday math.
Foer says in his lecture that 15 to 20 minutes of daily practice can do wonders for the memory. It is time well spent especially if you use your new found memory selectively for what is important to you.