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Moonwalking with Einstein – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

July 23, 2015

Some time in the mid-1980s, I was attending Mass with my family in New Jersey when I learned an important lesson about memory. We carpooled with our neighbors who lived a couple of houses away. I sat just to the left of Maria and I quietly and piously followed her up to the priest for communion. As Maria approached the altar, the priest held up the Eucharist and said, “The body of Christ.” Maria held out her hands at this very solemn moment, accepted the little piece of bread, replied, “Thank you” and put it in her mouth, finishing with the sign of the cross. All of us within a couple of feet of her turned to look at what had just happened because every Catholic in “good standing” knows that you are supposed to reply, “Amen.” Within a second, or two, Maria realized her mistake and started laughing so hard that she had to cover her mouth as tears rolled down her face. She laughed, on and off, for the rest of Mass and we replayed the incident on the ride home. Thus, a memory was born…

We all have memories like this from decades ago that we can almost ‘watch’ in HD, yet we can’t remember the name of the vendor we met this morning or what to get at the grocery store. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes about his year-long journey as a mental athlete with the goal of competing at the United States Memory Championships. His writing is excellent – witty, full of relevant anecdotes and a touch of science. While it was not written to serve as a self-help book, there are a handful of tips and tools that you can take away to improve your memory. At the very least, it’s a great argument for the idea that we can all get better at remembering.

moonwalkingFoer starts with a little history by commenting that the printing press may have been the beginning of the end for memory. With printed texts, people no longer had to remember as much. Fast forward to today, and we have smartphones (aka: personal digital assistants) sitting on the nightstand just waiting to serve us when we wake up in the morning. For instance, I used Google Maps today to get me to a coaching client in Washington, DC, Evernote to take notes during the meeting and Remember the Milk to, well…remember to do what I need to do today. We simply don’t trust our memories, anymore. Loehr refers to this as the “devolution” of memory.

The first thing to consider when trying to improve your memory during this era of devolution is that it takes practice. When Foehr first met participants at the memory championships at the beginning of his journey, he expected to find a bunch of savants who had the gift of exceptional memory. They immediately scoffed at this notion and talked about the hundreds of hours of dedicated practice that it took them to get to this level and compete. Foehr even refers to them as “mental athletes” because of the practice that goes into this sport.

The first “law” of remembering is to make it interesting. Make whatever you are trying to remember into something so funny, lewd and outrageous that it’s impossible to forget. So, if you need to remember to buy a head of lettuce, you might paint a mental picture of a head of lettuce with eyes, a nose, a mouth even little green arms and legs protruding from the sides. To take it further, imagine the head is sitting in the kid’s seat in the shopping cart with it’s legs crossed, sloppily eating another head of lettuce like when Venkman got slimed in Ghostbusters. Gross? Funny? Yes, and that’s the point. That image will be difficult to get out of your head when you arrive at Wegman’s and you won’t forget the one thing you really need to complete tonight’s dinner.

This technique works fine if all you have to remember is one thing. To remember multiple items, consider building your own little memory palace. Here’s how it works. First, identify an existing structure (your current house, the house you grew up in, etc.). Make sure it is a place that you know well. Next, use the technique from just above and now place the items throughout the house. Finally, imagine walking through the house and viewing each of the items. If my shopping list were shaving cream, milk, eggs and spinach, my memory palace might look like this:

  1. crazyfoam5The handrails leading up to my front door are made of twirling Barbasol cans that are spewing shaving cream down the steps like lava racing down a mountain; if I close my eyes, it makes me think of Crazy Foam.
  2. Just inside the front door is a cow standing on two legs. She’s dancing but stops to tell me that she is full and it’s time for me to buy some milk.
  3. In the very next room, there are four chickens sitting on the couch clucking to each other as they sit on the eggs they just laid. They’re watching The View and arguing about politics.
  4. In between the couch and the TV is a coffee table in an over-sized plastic container with spinach. The chickens, wanting to be healthier, lift the lid and begin eating the spinach during commercials.

Of course, memorizing is not limited to grocery lists. These techniques (and others discussed in the book) can be applied to action items from a team meeting and even remembering names. But, what good is remembering if all you can do is remember lists? Foehr talks about the people he admires most as those who “always seem to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready.” Intelligence, he argues, is more than memory but it seems to rely on a healthy memory. In the end, it all seems to come down to making connections at the right time.

After recounting the church story earlier in the week with my Mother, we laughed about the incident from 30 years ago. Mom actually remembered one more important fact that I had forgotten…Maria hadn’t eaten, yet, so the “thank you” was an automatic response to her hunger. Come to think of it, I may have heard Maria’s stomach grumbling but I just can’t remember…

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