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Interview: Josh Foer and the persistence of memory

24 February 2012

4:14 PM

24 February 2012

4:14 PM

Editorial conferences are fraught affairs. There is a rush of facts, opinions and suggestions. It’s a brave man who trusts his memory to retain all the information. ‘S’, a young
Russian journalist who lived between the wars, was one such brave man. He could recall perfectly each name, number and hint that his editor had mentioned. This came naturally to him, but at a cost.
S had to try to forget every sight and sound that he encountered in everyday life. He was a savant.

S’s gift for memory was phenomenal, but it is not unobtainable. A few years ago, an American journalist called Joshua Foer wrote a book ostensibly about how to improve one’s memory by using self-taught mnemonic tricks.
But it doubles as a history of the science of memory, as well as being a piece of participatory journalism in international ‘memory sport’.

Foer’s five year trail led him to the US Memory Championship, which he won at the first attempt. That triumph was the culmination of his journey from scepticism to conviction about the
extraordinary power of ordinary minds. Foer proved that anyone can become a memory champion if they can realise their memory’s vast potential.

I met Foer in central London a couple of weeks ago, and asked what had inspired him to investigate this phenomenon. ‘The notion that there was some kind of learnable trick, I didn’t
quite believe in. The notion that it has an incredible history. I was surprised by it… and once I got going, it also became a morality thing and a literacy thing.’

It was a competitive thing, too. Foer’s account of the US memory championship reads like a sport report. He fixates on an opponent, he sets intricate tactical plans, he watches a competitor
‘choking’. 200 pages of writing builds up to this cerebral version of the Super Bowl, and I asked Foer if this is actually a book about sport.

‘Well, that’s a question I’ve never been asked before. When I first went to one of these contests, I had this sort of ‘ha, ha, look at these geeks’ sort of thing.
I had in mind that I would write this sort of piece about these weirdoes who don’t know how to channel their competitive instincts and who would be better off doing something else with their
time. And in the end I kind of came to appreciate why they call themselves ‘mental athletes’. And why they see it as legitimate sport… and it’s no less useful than football
or basketball.’ 

Foer says that most contestants are physically fit and train very hard, adding that the current holder of the US title climbed Everest 3 weeks after his win.

The grinding application makes a savant’s natural talent all the more bizarre. Indeed, most savants are what might politely be described as eccentric. Kim Peek, the most famous savant of the
post-war era, a man who claimed to know 9,000 books verbatim, could not sit still. One savant, however, does not fit the stereotype. Foer’s book is at its sharpest when describing Daniel
Tammet, the savant on whom the documentary Brainman was based. Tammet is very articulate and personable, which
arouses suspicion. Is Tammet, Foer asked, a natural savant or does he use memory techniques?

Foer is a natural conversationalist, but he often stumbled when talking of Tammet — a sign of the complexity of Tammet’s story and Foer’s sensitivity to it. To simplify
Foer’s quandary: the more his own memory expanded, the more his doubts of Tammet grew.

Foer does not question Tammet’s gifts, but he is curious about his exceptionalism, arguing that the scientific understanding of savants is very vague. ‘As much as has been written about
savants over the years, and there have been literally hundreds of books and articles on them, there’s been very little rigorous writing.’ Foer hopes that this might change because some
‘really interesting research [will be done] if someone thought it worthwhile’.

Foer’s interest in Tammet is intense, and I asked if anyone else provoked such interest. ‘Yes, everyone on the circuit really,’ came the reply.

The name that arose most frequently is Tony Buzan, the English ‘memory millionaire’ who patented techniques like ‘mind-mapping’ and ‘brain gym’, which have
become wildly popular over the last 30 years. What was it about Buzan?

‘My initial reaction was ‘No way’… There’s a kind of scepticism that I’ve noticed between Americans and Brits. There’s a kind of smooth personality,
so put together that when you encounter them in America they prompt you to doubt them.’

Exposed only to WASPs and Gatsbian wannabees, I’ve always imagined that Americans were suspiciously ‘smooth and put together’. But Foer corrected me, pointedly. ‘No your
country’s teeming with them, and they hold positions of responsibility.’ The varnished faces of Tony Blair and David Cameron crossed my mind’s eye and I knew what he meant,
although they are not, I think, a peculiarly English beast.

How did Foer become convinced of Buzan’s authenticity? ‘[Because] he was right. This stuff [memory techniques] is learnable and applicable.’

The word ‘applicable’ lours over our conversation. These tricks must be useful in a wider social context or it would be mere vanity to write of them. Numerous memory champions say that
they want to start an ‘education revolution’, but are they working to the same ends? ‘I don’t think so,’ says Foer. But that’s not to say that those dreams are

‘There’s an enormous amount that’s been learned by cognitive science that has not precipitated down to the level of the classroom yet. And there is good evidence that if you
take a little time to explain to kids some fundamental principles about how their memories work and what sorts of things are memorable, then it has demonstrable benefits.’

One of these fundamental principles is ‘spaced learning’ — the fact that information is best learnt in small chunks that are revisited regularly so that knowledge is accumulated
and applied laterally. ‘We’ve known about this for 100 years,’ says Foer, but children still only learn one isolated paper at a time.

It is odd that education systems geared towards final exams are quite so contemptuous of memory, and Foer says that this inertia affects outcomes. ‘These techniques are fundamental;
they’re inherent to how memory works. Intelligent kids find a lot of them out by trial and error. They ask themselves, why is something easy to remember if I visualise it or attach an object
to it, or try to turn it into a narrative.’ Foer, ever modest, insists that even a dullard like him can learn and benefit by simple mnemonic devices.

Many of these tricks and learning patterns are being developed for the interactive age by memory champions, each trying to start their own ‘education revolution’. The challenge, though,
is to attract the attention of distracted policy makers.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering by
Joshua Foer is available in paperback.

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