Moonwalking with our Ancestors

mooncraterIt took me a few years, but recently I finally got around to reading the bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein.  Long frustrated by my poor memory, I found a lot to learn from author Joshua Foer‘s story of his year-long preparation for a national memory competition.  His training centered around mastering the fifth-century BCE mnemonic device of memory palaces.  Whether he had to memorize a deck of cards or a sequence of numbers, he used the same technique of encoding the information using an arbitrary, pre-determined system (for example, in Foer’s personal system the number 34 is Frank Sinatra crooning into a microphone, and the five of clubs is Dom DeLuise hula-hooping) and then mentally placing those images around buildings he knew well (for example, his childhood home or his high school)  Remembering the cards or numbers became simply a matter of imagining himself walking around the buildings, noting each image he encountered along the way, and then translating it back to the card or number it represented.  At first I found it disappointing to discover that memory champions rely on such absurdity, but the science and history of memory Foer wove throughout his story showed this trick to be not only a key insight into the elusive workings of the human mind, but also a useful directive for how even family historians like us can make our discoveries more memorable for our relatives.

Why do memory champions encode straightforwards lists into complicated images?  The answer can be found in anthropology, namely, what it was our earliest ancestors had to remember:  “where to find food and resources, and the route home, and which plants were edible and which were poisonous.”  They “didn’t need to recall phone numbers, or word-for-word instructions from their bosses, or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum.”  We might not be hunter-gatherers anymore, but we still have their brains, and we still remember visual imagery best of all.  The memory champions’ trick makes the unmemorable memorable simply by giving it a visual component.

This imagery functions in another way, too.  The way in which the memory champions encode information makes the images into “information barbs,” to use the terminology of one expert Foer interviewed.  The image of, say, Dom DeLuise hula-hooping in the driveway of Foer’s childhood home acts as a sort of hook to the actual information Foer wants to remember, that the five of clubs is the first card in a particular deck.  For the average person not using the memory palace technique for trivial lists, “all you need to remember is a hook,” explains the expert.  Any small detail likely to be easily recalled can be enough to reel in the whole memory from the recesses of your mind.  And visual details have the greatest potential for memorability.

But visual imagery alone isn’t enough.  Remember, the memory champions’ trick places the visual images in a “memory palace” for the champions to walk through.  Why this extra layer?  “We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context,” Foer writes partway through a discussion explaining why the best indicator of a chess player’s prowess is how well s/he can memorize chess boards.  His point about context is meant to be taken literally:  when presented with random boards — as in, boards that could not have arisen from game play — studies show that the experts’ memories perform as poorly as chess novices’.  “Experts [interpret] the present board in terms of their massive knowledge of past ones,” it turns out, and random boards can’t be broken down in this way.  Remarkably, even MRIs support this distinction, showing that the parts of the brain associated with long-term memory are engaged when experts look at real boards, but unfamiliar boards require the part of the brain that encodes new information.  In short, the chessboards that connect to what the experts already recognize are retained more quickly and completely.  The context of game-play is essential.

Moonwalking with Einstein is primarily concerned with how individuals can do a better job of retaining memories of their own lives as they live them.  As family historians, we focus instead on turning memories of the past into living memories that the next generation of our family will pass down.  Using visual imagery and historical context for our purposes will make the stories of our ancestors more memorable.  A well-chosen photograph, evocative description, or surprising historical detail can help what we share stand out in our relatives’ minds.  Perhaps reading Foer’s book with our agenda misses his point, but the moral of his story applies to us as well.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember…Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture:  All these essentially human acts depend on memory.  Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember.  Our memories make us who we are.  They are the seat of our values and source of our character.

I have no intention of competing in a memory championship as Foer did, but if the kids in my family grow up to know more about where they came from than their peers, then they (and all the generations of our family) will have won a far greater prize.  As Foer’s memory coach says, “If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human.”

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