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Book review: Build your memory palace, one brick at a time

Can a person with an average memory learn to remember everything?

As an adolescent, I once dined with my family at a Halifax restaurant. We returned to the establishment about a year later and were served by the same waiter: he recalled not only our names but also what we’d ordered previously. I suspected he had a trick. I wanted to learn it.

I often recall that incident while pondering the cruel limitations of my own memory. A journalist is forever stuffing his cranium with new facts and miscellany; if a quarter of it stuck, I’d be a knowledgeable individual. Yet to my withered hippocampus, a story I wrote two years earlier often seems the work of some other person; the knowledge I gathered in authoring it has ebbed away.

The only solace is that I’m not alone. New memories decay at a cellular level within the brain. Normal humans exhibit what’s called the “curve of forgetting” — and it’s bloody steep. The University of Waterloo claims that students who fail to reflect on the contents of a lecture will lose more than half of what they learned within a day. Within a month they’re down to just 2% or 3%. Yet even the most lethargic student knows he needn’t stroll into an examination a blank slate.

In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, journalist Joshua Foer recounts the history of humanity’s understanding of memory and the techniques devised to augment it. Nowadays, such matters are taken seriously mostly on the competitive memory circuit, an unusual subculture in which Foer immersed himself. He took up with an eccentric English champion, Ed Cooke, who coached him in time-honoured techniques, and then went on to win the U.S. Memory Championship in 2006 — proving that, given time and effort, a man with an average memory can perform remarkable mental gymnastics.

Evolution, Foer writes, works against us. Our distant ancestors’ brains were wired to locate animals to hunt, discern poisonous plants from edible ones, and get us home before dark. Homo erectus didn’t have to remember several constantly changing alphanumeric passwords. Natural selection has yet to catch up.

From the ancient world to the Renaissance, the educated classes devised shockingly effective coping mechanisms. “Once upon a time, every literate person was versed in [these] techniques,” Foer asserts. “Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric.” Even after man invented writing, the process of reproducing texts was both exclusive and labour-intensive; until at least the late Middle Ages, copying one by hand was as much an exercise in remembering its contents. A medieval student reading a text did so knowing he might never have it in his hands again. And early texts like papyrus scrolls lacked indexes; they weren’t designed for rapid retrieval. Recall was paramount.

The decline of memory can be marked from the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanical movable type and commenced the publishing revolution. Books rapidly became available commodities; the necessity of remembering every last detail of a handwritten text faded. But never has a bad memory been less disabling than in the modern era. Forget the year Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s prime minister? Google it. Can’t remember how to get to your uncle’s place? Ask your GPS. Today, knowing how to track down information seems more important than packing it methodically into your skull.

Foer’s book isn’t a how-to manual, but does provide some general guidelines. “The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t remember all types of information equally well,” he writes. One trick is to convert unmemorable information (such as phone numbers) into vivid images (like a nude supermodel bathing in a tub of cottage cheese). The more obscene or amusing the imagery, the more likely it is to stick. But how to arrange it all? “Memory palaces” to the rescue. Because the human brain is very good at remembering spaces, memory athletes catalogue and store their images in familiar mental spaces. In memorizing a shopping list, for example, one might imagine the cheese-coated supermodel lounging about in the kitchen of one’s childhood home.

Moonwalking with Einstein gives one the impression that while a more capacious memory would prove handy at cocktail parties, it’s probably not worth the effort. Most of the dedicated memory athletes Foer encountered seem not to have achieved outsized accomplishments either professionally or personally, and Foer’s descriptions of his own gruelling training sessions are hardly appealing. “I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the basement of my parents’ home at 6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap and an image in my mind’s eye of a lingerie-clad garden gnome suspended over my grandmother’s kitchen table,” he writes. At one point, he asked friends and family to fabricate biographies he could billet in his memory palaces. “Several unromantic dinners with my girlfriend were spent with her in character, telling me stories about her life as a Nebraska farmer … which I then recalled for her over dessert.” For all that, Foer concedes that he rarely uses these hard-bought skills to remember phone numbers or shopping lists; he still prefers using his cellphone or pen and paper. If nothing else, he eradicated my desire to emulate that Halifax waiter.

So what’s the point, then? “What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay more attention to the world around me,” Foer concludes. “There is something to be said for the value of not merely passing through the world, but also making some effort to capture it.” Words to live by. This book is packed with many more striking insights. If only I could remember them.

Executive Summaries

Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (Doubleday)
Margaret Heffernan

Whether among sub-prime mortgage lenders, investors in Bernie Madoff’s funds, or “the embers of BP’s refinery,” the central challenge, argues Heffernan, “was not harm that was invisible — but harm that so many preferred to ignore.” Taking her cue from the legal concept of “wilful blindness,” which assigns culpability to those who could have and should have known something that they chose not to see, journalist Heffernan asks why individuals and organizations are so often unwilling to recognize the truths in front of them.

Though the clearest manifestation of wilful blindness may be the way we overlook the flaws of our loved ones, it can just as easily skew our perceptions of ideas. Heffernan explores the neuroscience behind what psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” the processes by which people contort their thinking to avoid feeling anxious or guilty. The brain encourages these contortions, activating reward circuits in response to biased reasoning that gives a high akin to a junkie’s. Among her prescriptions for overcoming the tendency: reduce the homogeneity of our institutions, organizations and corporate boards to invite natural checks against blindness. By this view, diversity “isn’t a form of political correctness but an insurance.” — Jordan Timm

Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything (Wiley)
John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper

Mauldin’s weekly e-newsletter has its share of interested readers at the CB offices, and his previous books on investing enjoyed bestseller status on The New York Times list. The outlook here isn’t exactly rainbows and butterflies. The upheaval we’ve been through in the past few years as the private debt bubble burst is only a preview of what’s to come, concludes Mauldin, the president of Millennium Wave Advisors (writing here with an editor for an economic analysis firm). As a 60-year “global debt supercycle” draws to a close, it’ll bring an inevitable series of government defaults. “We have created a situation that is going to cause a lot of pain. It is not a question of pain or no pain; it is just when and how we decide (or are forced) to take it.”

The duo expect disaster not just in Europe, but in Japan, the U.S., and Australia (the last they call “a house of cards”). And while investors can profit in emerging markets, they should beware loose-money policies imported from the West and focus on trades in those markets, not long-term investments. Back home, the authors expect crushing deflation due to deleveraging, followed by devaluation and inflation. Mauldin and Tepper admit they “are not certain which is the lesser evil.” — J.T.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin)
Edward Glaeser

“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist,” writes Glaeser, a Harvard economics prof and New York Times blogger. As per the title, he thinks the urban environment is our greatest invention as a species, and explores the economic underpinnings of assorted cities, ascendant and in decline, today and through history.

The “central paradox” of the modern city, Glaeser contends, is that “proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distances has fallen.” He offers as evidence the rise of New York City, its post-industrial decline, and its rebirth as a centre of financial innovation. But his interest is as much in the developing world, where massive urbanization is making ever more pertinent the question of what makes a city successful. There are some predictors of growth that are outside human control — Glaeser finds that a city’s average temperature in January is a pretty reliable indicator of its prospects, for example. But perhaps the most important thing for a city’s long-term health is an element of fluidity: the conditions in its infrastructure, governance, and population that allow it to reinvent itself time and again. — J.T.