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Books

Speak, Memory

One day, the American journalist Joshua Foer is surfing the net, trying to find the answer to a specific question: who is the most intelligent person in the world? He can’t find a definitive answer.

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer

Allen Lane, pp.307, 14.99

One day, the American journalist Joshua Foer is surfing the net, trying to find the answer to a specific question: who is the most intelligent person in the world? He can’t find a definitive answer.

One day, the American journalist Joshua Foer is surfing the net, trying to find the answer to a specific question: who is the most intelligent person in the world? He can’t find a definitive answer. But he sees that a man called Ben Pridmore is the world’s ‘memory champion’. Foer is instantly intrigued. He himself has, he says, an average memory. He forgets lots of things — where he put his keys, for instance. And his girlfriend’s birthday. And Valentine’s day. Foer wonders what it would be like to be a memory champion. ‘What was not to envy?’ he says.

So he goes to find some people who compete in memory contests. There is Ed Cooke, who tells Foer that ‘even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly’. There is Tony Buzan, the Simon Cowell of the memory world, who refers to memory competitors as ‘warriors of the mind’, and who is wearing a jacket ‘with five enormous gold-rimmed buttons and a collarless shirt, with another large button at his throat.’ Buzan, who whizzes around the world giving lectures on how to perform mental gymnastics, tells Foer that he should become a memory competitor himself.

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At this point, Foer makes a couple of interesting moves. He starts to wonder what memory actually is. It’s probably the most fundamental thing we do with our brains — we learn from the past, and, using what we’ve remembered, try to predict the future. This, of course, means that our memories need to be selective — we must separate the mnemonic sheep from the goats. We must keep what is useful, and link it up in a way that makes it memorable. Obviously, you have to keep updating your memory, because it’s a sort of life manual, rather than an album full of snapshots, as we often expect it to be. Memory is not set in stone. It’s fungible. This means it’s treacherous. But it also means that, if you know how, it can be manipulated.

Foer visits ‘the most forgetful man in the world’, an octogenarian from San Diego known as EP. In 1992, EP had an attack of herpes simplex, which destroyed two ‘walnut-sized’ areas in his brain, while leaving the rest intact. EP now has two types of amnesia — he can’t form new memories, or remember old ones. But he can remember his life before 1950. Often, he wakes up, eats breakfast, goes back to bed, gets up again, and eats breakfast again. Sometimes he has three breakfasts. But he does not have breakfast all day. He sits with the news- paper, not reading it, but drawing moustaches on the faces of people in the news. Most days he goes for walks.

Interestingly, EP usually doesn’t get lost on his walks, which suggests that, if he does something often enough, the pattern becomes embedded, and joins the pre-1950 memories in his head. But is EP, who has no sense of the future, and therefore no worries, in heaven? Or is he in hell? Foer takes a walk with him; almost immediately, EP looks around, with no idea, or almost no idea, of who Foer is. He’s forgotten. It is a chilling moment. ‘He is trapped, I realise, in the ultimate existential nightmare,’ writes Foer.

Can the part of the brain that organises memory be thought of as the soul? Memory, after all, is the sum of the pattern of connections made by each person’s brain. It’s unique to the individual. Well, who knows? But Foer’s speculations are fascinating, and he slides you through this material effortlessly. He tells us how memory used to be very important in the days before books. Now we can just Google everything. But we still have to remember where the websites are. And, in any case, the important thing is the way we connect things together.

Foer has a crack at becoming a memory champion himself. He decides to compete in America, where the competition is not so stiff. (Europeans, it is said, have a natural affinity with memory, because they’re always looking back; Americans, on the other hand, have their eyes on the future.) Foer spends months mastering mnemonic tricks. He learns how to link arbitrary things together in his brain using the technique known as the ‘memory palace’ — you think of a building you know, and place the things you need to remember in different rooms. He does this over and over.

Ed Cooke was right. You can do a lot with an average memory. Foer becomes the memory champion of America. He’s a memory star. But in real life, his memory remains average. Days after his big victory, he goes out to dinner, and takes the train home, having forgotten that he’d set off in a car. ‘I hadn’t just forgotten where I parked it,’ he tells us. ‘I’d forgotten I had it.’

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