William Leith

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.

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.

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.

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