Here’s my two-word wrap up on memory training after reading Moonwalking with Einstein: Now what?
I’m writing this blog post 6 days after I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything from cover to cover, and it certainly proved how pathetic my memory is and what Joshua Foer said—if I don’t remember it wrongly—about not remembering much about a book after reading it.
Reading the last few pages of the book was what left me feeling frustrated. It wasn’t the talk about how we have external memory devices help us do most of the remembering and therefore the big question of whether or not there’s still a need for us to rely on our internal memories.
The frustration arose because I was here to find out the exact methods we can train our memory.
To me, that question can be easily answered in my own context: train your internal memory so that I can easily retrieve information at will and analyse it while using external memory devices as backup and verification.
So this post, I’m going to create my own closure on memory training in relation to my quest by covering the following points
- Points that stood out in the book
- Piecing together bits and pieces of concrete “to-do” steps for memory training from the book
- Moving forward: memory training strategy
Let’s get down to it because I start forgetting.
Don’t Forget to Remember: Points That Stood Out in Moonwalking with Einstein
307 pages and 6 days later, depending on my external memory device: Evernote which helped me remember my notes, and now shifting that responsibility to my unreliable—what other choice do I have?—working internal memory, it’s all boiled down to the following 5 points that stood out for me.
1) Time: tempo at which we experience life’s passage, time as a mental construct
We’ve always looked at time—the clock, our watch or any other device to tell the time—as this external guiding hand that takes us through our daily lives and our entire life, really.
We’ve always thought we can depend on the numbers we see that indicates time.
But what really stood out in my reading, is how time is an experience, documented by our memories, that allows us to maintain the illusion of continuity from moment to moment, year to year, to experience stability and make sense of things.
Continuity defines our “self,” and it depends entirely on memory. Once our memories start failing, with case studies mentioned in the book, we lose track of time, and even who we are.
Then it gets you rethinking about the concept of time you’ve always considered.
Time, the tempo at which we experience life’s passage, is not external.
Time is a mental construct, our experience of it depends and is altered by our memories, our cognitive abilities… If our internal memory begins malfunctioning, our experience of time and our reality changes.
My take? We need to keep our minds and memories in peak performance to optimise our experience of time and reality, in other words, our lives.
2) Simonides of Ceos: Method of Loci
A method to remember, is Simonides of Ceos’ Method of Loci, engaging one’s spatial memory in the act of remembering.
- Images to represent the content you want to remember. Such as your grocery or to-do list
- Loci, or places, to store the above images
His technique is to convert something unmemorable into a series of engrossing visual images, which could be disturbing to some, if you make it really vaudeville or just lewd.
After generating these highly impressionable series of images, you then mentally arrange them within an imagined space, for example, the different spaces where you can deposit the images in your bedroom, and suddenly those usually forgettable items become unforgettable.
This is called the memory palace. And it’s important to create a space in your mind’s eye where you know well and can easily visualise.
It’s crucial then to have thousands of memory palaces, each built to hold a different set of memories.
So whenever you need to retrieve a specific information, you just need to go on a mental tour.
My take? Sounds insanely intense to have to be familiar with so many spaces, and not to say, strenuous to create engrossing visual images and then mentally arrange them in that imagine space every time you need to remember something. But how do we start, and get better at it?
3) Memory Techniques: Impressive but Ultimately Useless?
The memory championships described in Moonwalking with Einstein makes me wonder what’s the entire purpose of memorising random numbers up to the 7th digit and playing cards with tedious memory techniques and using tools like ear muffs and goggles to block out distract during the memorization.
Does make me agree with the Chinese who objected that Simonides’ method of loci way more tedious than rote repetition which is faster and simpler.
As part of the championship, memory athletes have to memorize poems, but it turns out to be the category that’s the hardest for most. But to me, it’s the category that’s the most important and useful for academics, scholars, even knowledge workers today.
Instead of memorizing playing cards and numbers, what are the memory techniques that can support us with remembering and retrieving information at will and analyse them? Given how I agree that it’s important that we remember the content, where it’s retained in our memory, in order for us to retrieve it in the first place?
My take: We don’t need memory techniques to impress people and remember useless stuff, but we need a method to retain important information in our personal and professional lives, so that we can get better at what we do, in terms of efficiency and expertise.
4) Art of memory: proper retention and ordering of knowledge
Effective learning is to be able to learn and remember anything you want, and to be able to easily retrieve that information at will and analyse it. In the book, what caught my attention is also its mention about how a trained memory is less about gaining easy access to information than about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person.
I feel that the former strengthens the latter.
Another really cool point about proper retention and ordering of knowledge points out how invention depends on inventory. New ideas come from the blend of old ideas—if order to invent, one first needs a proper inventory of existing ideas to draw upon.
The art of memory is ultimately useful not just as a tool of recording but a tool of invention based on indexed inventory and composition because one is able to find just the right piece of information at just the right moment.
In the past, the goal of training one’s memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas.
As an art, memory was most importantly associated in the Middle Ages with composition, not simply with retention,” argues Carruthers. “Those who practiced the crafts of memory used them—as all crafts are used— to make new things: prayers, meditations, sermons, pictures, hymns, stories, and poems.
But even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
… but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are processing the world, the more we can remember about it.
My take: I agree with the above, and I look forward to having an improved memory.
5) Brain is muscle, memory training is mental workout
Deliberate practice is what separates experts from the rest of us.
Experts tend to engage in very directed, highly focused routine, as Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University who is internationally recognized as a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance, observed after having studied the best of the best in many different fields.
Ericsson found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development.
They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
Deliberate practice, termed by Ericsson, by its nature, must be hard since they don’t allow the “auto-pilot” cruising mode to kick in, but they opt to stay in the phase where they are always pushing themselves to get better, deliberately.
The point here?
Think of enhancing your memory more like improving a skill, using deliberate practice.
On top of the art of memory, it’s important to approach memory training like a science.
You can develop hypotheses about your limitations, conduct experiments and track data, in order to analyse what you’re doing and how to get better at remembering. So this memory training practice would have to be focused and deliberate, so that you can collect data such as keeping track of how long the practice session is and any difficulties encountered along the way and then analyse it for feedback.
In order to remember well, during this memory training deliberate practice, one has to pay attention; stay focused. We forget because we’re too busy trying to formulate thoughts on how to reply instead of paying attention. This highlights a reason why Simonides technique works well because it enforces a degree of attention and focus that we normally lack; dwelling on something makes it more memorable.
My take: If memory can be trained through deliberate practice, it’s time to figure out HOW.
Reconstructing: Piecing together bits and pieces of concrete “to-do” steps for memory training
1) 1 hour of memorization daily
2) Collect architecture for memory palaces
- Know buildings thoroughly—to have such a rich and textured set of associations with every corner of every room “mental storehouses” so that it’s easier to deposit mental images into these mentally visualized places — like photoshop, layering on the canvas
- The better I knew the buildings, and the more each felt like home, the stickier my images would be and the easier it would be to reconstruct them later.
3) Get in shape
- Health, physique, sharp mind
- Reminded me of 2 books I read years ago, but forgot most of the content: Feed Your Brain, Lose Your Belly and Super Brain
4) Deliberate practice
- Think of enhancing memory more like improving a skill
- Practice would have to be focused and deliberate
- Keep track of how long the practice session is and any difficulties encountered along the way
- Collect data and analyse it for feedback
5) Spend meditative time
- Develop a meditation practice
- Spend time during the meditative time to dwell—as described in deliberate practice above—on an important content that I want to remember
Moving Forward: Memory Training Strategy
1 hour of memorization daily is pretty much out of the question for me with my current workload and schedule. From personal experience which went undocumented, I realised that the part on dwelling—meditative time worked for me.
However, meditative time wasn’t an eyes-shut meditation, but I spent time to dwell and contemplate on the content over and over… it took me 2 months to become so familiar with the content that I believe it’s etched deeply in my memory.
What happened wasn’t just pure remembering, but I have synthesized the content with my understanding of it. That’s what made it stick; made me remember.
So here’s my memory training strategy that I would integrate in my current routine.
- After reading a piece of content (such as an article, or chapter)
- Write notes
- Spend time to synthesize what I remembered with my understanding
- Write what I understood in my own words—just like this blog post
- Remembering facts and important information, i.e. of important biographies
- Use the method of loci
- Recall the memory every now and then to enforce the images
- Get in shape
- Have a healthy routine where I sleep earlier and wake up earlier
- Cut digital consumption during deliberate practice times
- Cut digital usage before sleep so I don’t result in digital fatigue
- Re-read Feed Your Brain, Lose Your Belly & Super Brain to shape up
- Start an exercise routine
Conclusion: What’s Next?
Gonna pen this down in my schedule: Monthly updates on memory training deliberate practice.
Don’t forget to stay tuned.