The Trick To A Great Memory? It’s All About Creativity

A keenly creative visual and spatial imagination can help you commit more to memory.

As Joshua Foer writes in the New York Times, the U.S.A Memory Championships was not where he saw himself (a mere pleb, nothing close to the savants he assumed populated these types of events) achieving greatness. However, what he discovered, much to his surprise, was that these memory specialists, some of them able to remember thousands of random digits in under an hour would never classify themselves as savants, but rather, as mental athletes.

Many of them don’t even believe in the idea of a photographic memory, but rather a highly developed spatial and visual memory system that allows them to commit numbers, names, even huge chunks of text to memory, with incredible speed and accuracy. The reason for this, is that our memory, like everything else, has evolved through a process of natural selection that was honed in surroundings very different from the current situation in which we live. Cave men didn’t need to remember the names of fifty new people that they met at a networking event, but the location of clean water and non-poisonous berries would certainly come in handy. Thus the mental athletes, when put in f.M.R.I. scanners while being asked to memorize numbers and pictures, were seen to be utilizing the parts of their brain known to be related to spatial memory.

Therefore, when Foer set out to test his own mnemonic potential, he began by creating what the experts refer to as a “memory palace:” a complex visual architecture, like the inside of a house or building, or a well known hiking trail, along which he could place the incredibly arresting images that he would be using as triggers or stand-ins for numbers, or playing cards — whatever he was trying to commit to memory. The more outlandish and spectacular the images, the better, ie. the easier they would be to recall. In this case, having a quick and ready store of creativity can actually help you have a better memory. Read the description of the memory palace Foer used to memorize a deck of cards at the U.S.A Championships, below:

I began peeling through the pack as fast as I could, flicking three cards at a time off the top of the deck and into my right hand. I was storing the images in the memory palace I knew better than any other, one based on the house in Washington in which I grew up. Inside the front door, the Incredible Hulk rode a stationary bike while a pair of oversize, loopy earrings weighed down his earlobes (three of clubs, seven of diamonds, jack of spades). Next to the mirror at the bottom of the stairs, Terry Bradshaw balanced on a wheelchair (seven of hearts, nine of diamonds, eight of hearts), and just behind him, a midget jockey in a sombrero parachuted from an airplane with an umbrella (seven of spades, eight of diamonds, four of clubs). I saw Jerry Seinfeld sprawled out bleeding on the hood of a Lamborghini in the hallway (five of hearts, ace of diamonds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my parents’ bedroom door, I saw myself moonwalking with Einstein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds).

U.S.A Memory Championships

New York Times: “The Secrets of a Mind Gamer”

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