In 2005, Joshua Foer was a year out of Yale University covering the USA Memory Championship for Slate magazine when he became the story.
How the young science journalist pulled off becoming the USA Memory champion was the subject of his February 16 lecture before a packed house at the Frick Center. Foer is the author of the Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin, 2011), which made him an overnight authority in the world of mnemonics.
In the first of this spring’s Science Talks lectures, Foer explained that his journey began with the routine assignment of covering the USA Memory Championship in New York, a quirky annual ritual drawing the nation's finest competitive memorizers of poems, sheets of random numbers and shuffled packs of playing cards.
“Everybody who competes in this contest has just an average memory,” a competitor had told Foer. But they used ancient mnemonic techniques to intensively train their brains to perform “miraculous feats of memory.” Anyone could do it, Foer was told. So he volunteered, and spent the next year in training.
For centuries, memorization was a skill at the heart of classical education. Cicero was an advocate, as was Socrates, who feared that, as Foer put it, “a new invention called writing is going to make us dumb.” Today, computers make it unnecessary to memorize information, since it is all easily accessible. Still, Foer’s experience demonstrates that the brain is capable of amazing feats.
In the Memory Championship, competitors are handed a shuffled deck of cards and required to flip through and memorize the 52 cards as they are in the deck, in order, as quickly as they can, then set the deck down. The time is recorded. Then they're given a fresh deck and told to reassemble an unshuffled companion deck, the 52 cards, in that same order.
The fastest time in the 2005 cards competition was 1 minute 55 seconds. In the nationals a year later, Foer’s time—he was a competitor now—was a U.S. record 1 minute 40 seconds. And this is a man who insists he regularly forgets where he left his keys.
How did he master the deck-of-cards trick? The key is to conjure up a memorable image to associate with the item to be memorized. There’s a clue in the book’s curious title, Moonwalking with Einstein.
Dom DeLuise hula-hooping
“If you take a second to picture Einstein moonwalking, it's such a weird image,” Foer said. “It's memorable enough. Einstein moonwalking. Moonwalking with Einstein.” In the USA Memory Championship's shuffled-deck competition, he used the image of the comedian Dom DeLuise hula-hooping to memorize the five of clubs—the fifth card in the deck.
Foer used the audience to demonstrate the “anyone can do it” theory. The first object to memorize was a top hat.
“We're going to picture a top hat resting on top of this podium. Try to picture that in your mind's eye,” he said. Einstein's moonwalking/book and DeLuise's hula/card became top hat/podium. There would be more objects, seven in all, and more associations.
The audience would hear the associations and then, responding as one, (which, of course, gave cover to slackers), perfectly recalled each of the seven objects.
“All right,” Foer said. “I think you guys are ready to do this.”
There are practical uses for these skills, such as remembering names and giving speeches. It can be helpful for medical students memorizing anatomy and terms. “Does it work in blackjack?” one audience member asked. “Not so much,” he said, noting that some USA Memory competitors were considered persona non grata in Las Vegas.
After his own victory in the nationals, Foer went on to represent the United States in the year's World Championship in Oxford, England.
“I got absolutely destroyed,” he said. In a field of 37, he finished 13th. A 20-year-old German competitor won. “The Germans take this so seriously. I'm pleased to say, I whupped the crap out of the French guy.”
“I haven't memorized a deck of cards in several years,” he said. The current world record is 21.9 seconds.“I've moved on to other things. I was a veritable Lou Ferrigno of mnemonics,” he said. “Now, mnemonically speaking, I'm a bit of a fat shlub.”