Reporter Joshua Foer explains how to remember everything

February 25, 2012

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Science reporter Joshua Foer was standing outside the building where the U.S.A. National Memory Championship competition was taking place. He was there covering the event, which was new to him, and which he thought of as a kind of quirky curiosity.

A British competitor who had come to the American championships as a kind of “spring training” in advance of the world championships stood outside smoking a cigarette.

“You’re a journalist,” he said to Foer. “Do you know Britney Spears?”

No, Foer said. He did not.

Ah, it was too bad, the competitor replied. He had a dream of teaching Britney Spears some age-old memory-enhancing techniques on live television, to prove that anyone could learn to memorize hundreds upon thousands of random words or digits in a row, as he and the other would-be memory champs did every year.

Foer reasserted that he did not know the young pop star.

“But maybe you can train me,” Foer said.

That was the beginning of how Foer went from observer to competitor, training himself with those same memory-enhancing techniques, and eventually going on to win the 2006 U.S. championship. (He documented his journey in his much-praised book, Moonwalking with Einstein.) In the process, he also set a new U.S. record, memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of playing cards in 1 minute 40 seconds. (His record has since been broken, and currently stands at 29 seconds.)

Foer went on to represent America at the world championships that year, where unfortunately, he “had his tuchas handed” to him by the Brits, the Germans and the Malaysians, among others.

But through his journey, Foer learned that the British competitor he met that first day was right: People who succeed at this memory thing aren’t geniuses. They aren’t smarter than the rest of us, nor do they have brains that are anatomically superior.

What they’ve done is trained themselves with a technique called the Memory Palace -- a mnemonic device that dates back to ancient Greece that allows users to trick themselves into using the visual and spatial parts of their brain to remember things that don’t always have a visual or spatial dimension.

In the tape above, Foer demonstrates the Memory Palace technique to the audience at the talk he gave at Elmhurst College last week. And in doing so, he proves that whether you’re Britney Spears or not, you too can turn an ordinary assembly hall into your very own Memory Palace.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Joshua Foer spoke at an event presented by Elmhurst College in February. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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