- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011


By Joshua Foer
Penguin Press, $26.95, 320 pages

As the title suggests, this book is a romp through memory tricks over time - the more outrageous the imagination, the better the results. Joshua Foer is a young Internet journalist who writes so charmingly that he almost convinces you that everyone should, or could, become a “mental athlete” with a memory to amaze. Indeed, he spent three years researching and writing this book more or less as a lark, during which time he learned so much from European experts (they’re better than Americans) that he ended up winning the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship (but flunked the European equivalent).

His triumph is impressive, but in the Google era, how many people are interested in investing the time necessary to learn how to set up “memory palaces” into which they can mentally place objects from an arbitrary list for later recall, or to memorize shuffled packs of cards in order to astonish their friends? And the author’s casual “I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten” becomes the first unqualified claim on the jacket. Who says?

Mr. Foer writes that his book is about “how I learned firsthand that our memories are indeed improvable, within limits. It is also about the scientific study of expertise, and how researchers who study memory champions have discovered general principles of skill acquisition - secrets to improving at just about anything - from how mental athletes train their brains.”

The author began researching his book early in his journalistic career while living in his parents’ basement, and his enthusiasm morphed into an obsession. He fell under the spell of Ben Pridmore, the “temporarily unemployed” reigning world memory champion, who could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 32 seconds and who knew pi to 50,000 digits. (There’s always somebody out there who is able to do more - like the Japanese mnemonist who learned pi to more than 80,000 digits.)

Mr. Foer says that Romans such as Cicero and Quintilian (from Hispania) codified the techniques of the “journey method” of memory training that has been resurrected by Tony Buzan, an idiosyncratic Brit who founded the World Memory Championship in 1991. It was Mr. Buzan who challenged Mr. Foer to learn the techniques many Americans have been exposed to in Dale Carnegie courses, telling him that winning the championship was less a test of memory than of creativity.

To remember numbers, Mr. Foer first used the “major” system, a simple code by which numbers are converted into phonetic sounds, which are then turned into words that can become images for a “memory palace.” Mr. Foer found this system, which dates from the 17th century, useful for memorizing his credit card and bank account numbers. But to compete in international memory competitions, he had to learn the “person-action-object” system (PAO), a far more complex system that “effectively generates a unique image for every number from 0 to 999,999.”

The PAO system also enables “mental athletes” to memorize decks of cards by associating each card with its own person/action/object image. “This allows any triplet of cards to be combined into a single image, and for a full deck to be condensed into just eighteen unique images (52 divided by 3 is 17, with one card left over).”

Here is how Mr. Foer describes his system for recollecting the latter half of a deck of cards in the U.S. memory championship competition: “I saw Jerry Seinfeld sprawled out bleeding on the hood of a Lamborghini in the hallway (five of hearts, ace of diamonds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my parents’ bedroom door, myself moonwalking with Einstein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds).”

With the competition behind him, Mr. Foer confesses that he only sporadically uses the techniques he learned to memorize phone numbers of people he wanted to call - “it was just too simple to punch them into my cellphone.” Still, he argues that the value of memory training is not just to remember but to “get in the habit of noticing and appreciating.”

He waxes philosophical: “Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged.”

If exercising your imagination in the service of testing your memory is your bag, this book is for you.

Priscilla S. Taylor, a writer and editor in McLean, edited Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly Key Reporter for 18 years.

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