Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An Award-Winning Memory

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Joshua Foer
In 2005 journalist Joshua Foer covered the U.S.A. Memory Championships for a story. He was fascinated by the event, which challenges competitors to push their memories to the limit by recalling decks of cards in sequence, a previously unpublished poem, long lists of numbers, or fictitious first and last names associated with photographs of various people. The more Foer saw, the more he was fascinated by the competitors' apparently limitless capacities for holding information. He began to study memory and to do his own experiments. A year later, he returned to the Championships, this time as a competitor. Not only did he win, but he set a new record in the "speed cards" event by memorizing an entire deck of cards in only one minute and forty seconds.

Foer describes how he accomplished this feat in an intriguing TED talk. TED is a nonprofit whose mission is to bring together individuals from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design to share what they know at conferences and via "talks" on their website, among other means. Foer swears that he does not have a particularly great memory. Anyone, he says in his talk, can accomplish this sort of thing.  

Foer was able to learn all the cards because he had dedicated time and energy to assigning each card a celebrity match and memorizing them. For example, the six of hearts might be Britney Spears, the jack of diamonds might be Mickey Rooney, etc. He made sure to select celebrities that were meaningful to him and whom he could clearly visualize; for example, famous as author Mary Shelley may be, it's hard to picture her. Then he practiced by going through a decks of cards, imagining very vivid scenarios in which he walked through his house and encountered each of the characters in the order that their cards were drawn from the deck. When the cards were taken away he simply replayed the scenario in his head and was able to "see" each of the celebrities and associate each with their card.

While this particular situation is not one we encounter often at The Yellin Center, Foer's message about memory echoes advice we often give students: To remember something, one has to figure out a way to convert the information into another format that will make it meaningful. For example, to remember information about the Battle of Gettysburg for a test, a student could draw the battle, representing the different battalions and their actions throughout the conflict. The student could act it out with friends or with Lego people. The student could picture the battle vivdly in his/her head, or find a documentary or a narrative account of the battle. It may also be valuable to compare and contrast the Battle of Gettysburg with something the student knows well, ranging from another battle to a football game.

Memory strategies are generally not one-size-fits-all, meaning that learners will have to experiment to figure out which kinds of transformations will make the information meaningful, and therefore memorable, to them. But as Foer, the journalist turned memory champion, demonstrates, seemingly superhuman feats of memory are not as superhuman as they seem.

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