Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Speak, Memory: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything with Joshua Foer

A sunny afternoon and a packed house greeted Joshua Foer for what was a highly stimulating talk on his hit book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything . CBC’s Adrian Harewood was, as always, an excellent moderator. 


Foer, 30, needs no notes at the podium. Rather, he forms “memory palaces.” On the imagined front door, he explains, there is an image of his first anecdote for today’s talk. He then visualizes himself entering the ‘palace’ foyer and seeing a vivid, even grotesque (and therefore unforgettable) image representing the next topic. And so on and so forth. This, we learn, was how Cicero managed to map out his lengthly public speeches.


Foer is all about taking age-old memory techniques and explaining them through up-to-date understandings of how we absorb, retain (or fail to retain) information. By no means a neuroscientist, one senses Foer stumbled into the (ancient) world of memory by happenstance in the way Freakonomics’ nerdy authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner defy conventional wisdom and make head-scratching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. While nothing here is revolutionary, Foer has a gift for communicating tricky concepts - unsurprisingly leading to many Malcolm Gladwell comparisons.


Memory, for Foer, is the “root of our self-identity” since it forms our base of knowledge from which we can derive new ideas and make new connections. Yet our Google-obsessed society has largely rejected the value of memory. After all, everything can simply be researched online - what Foer terms the “externalization of memory.” An increasing number of high school students graduate with an alarmingly shallow base of knowledge. Rapid education system reforms have led to an almost exclusive focus on creative and critical thinking, yet, as Foer exclaims, these thinkers “need something to think about!”


Dedicating himself to practicing ancient memory techniques each day led to a stunning victory at the 2006 USA Memory Championship. Foer memorized a full deck of cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds, a new national record. It is unclear by Foer’s own admission if the techniques used to triumph at a memory competition are actually relevant to retaining more complex, value-laden real-world concepts.


Still, Foer’s key ideas are highly relatable and actionable. The secret to being a memory champion is activating a form of memory already highly developed in us humans: spatial and visual memory. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on these aspects of memory to survive. The theory of elaborative encoding explains that we are more likely to remember information that can be linked to an already-existing schema or network of information. Meanwhile, we are less likely to remember isolated, useless bits such as names. (On that note, during the Q and A session many audience members shared their challenges remembering names. Foer suggests associating each name with a highly-memorable image and/or sound.)


When it comes to subjects about which we are especially passionate, we tend to flex our memory muscles to the fullest. As an opera and theatre lover, I am able to follow the careers of dozens of my favourite performers. When I learn that such-and-such coloratura soprano is undertaking a new role or production, I can integrate this nugget into existing networks. Indeed, Foer notes that our learning potential is inextricably linked with what we know already.


What is perhaps most frustrating to Foer - and to myself, as a student - is the gaping discrepancy between the state of our knowledge on memory and the methods used to educate our children. We know, for instance, that it is most effective to learn in intervals - learning something, leaving it to marinate for a while, and then returning to expand upon it. Meanwhile, most students from elementary school right through university learn in units - with a test at the end for which to cram (of course!). We then proceed to forget the content and move on. Foer’s advocacy for cumulative tests - requiring students to study an entire term rather than one unit at a time - would not go over so well in my University of Ottawa classes. One could not miss the collective groan that is sure to be prompted, by a professor who announces cumulative exams.


As the Q&A session progressed, I became more and more aware that with all his inquisitiveness and dynamism, Foer is certainly no messianic expert on memory improvement. On the question of how to apply his tricks to stave off memory decline in aging adults, Foer had little to offer. However, Foer’s drive to discover and conquer his own brainpower - while managing to not freak out his girlfriend - is in itself a source of inspiration.