i'd like to invite you to close your eyes. imagine yourself standingoutside the front door of your home. i'd like you to noticethe color of the door, the material that it's made out of. now visualize a packof overweight nudists on bicycles. (laughter) they are competingin a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straightfor your front door. i need you to actually see this.
they are pedalingreally hard, they're sweaty, they're bouncing around a lot. and they crash straightinto the front door of your home. bicycles fly everywhere,wheels roll past you, spokes end up in awkward places. step over the threshold of your doorinto your foyer, your hallway, whatever's on the other side, and appreciate the quality of the light. the light is shiningdown on cookie monster.
cookie monster is waving at youfrom his perch on top of a tan horse. it's a talking horse. you can practically feelhis blue fur tickling your nose. you can smell the oatmeal raisin cookiethat he's about to shovel into his mouth. walk past him. walk past him into your living room. in your living room,in full imaginative broadband, picture britney spears. she is scantily clad, she's dancingon your coffee table,
and she's singing"hit me baby one more time." and then, follow me into your kitchen. in your kitchen, the floor has beenpaved over with a yellow brick road, and out of your oven are comingtowards you dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lionfrom "the wizard of oz," hand-in-hand, skippingstraight towards you. okay. open your eyes. i want to tell youabout a very bizarre contest that is held every springin new york city.
it's called the united statesmemory championship. and i had gone to coverthis contest a few years back as a science journalist, expecting, i guess, that this was goingto be like the superbowl of savants. this was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both ageand hygienic upkeep. they were memorizinghundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once. they were memorizing the names of dozensand dozens and dozens of strangers.
they were memorizingentire poems in just a few minutes. they were competingto see who could memorize the order of a shuffled packof playing cards the fastest. i was like, this is unbelievable. these people must be freaks of nature. and i started talkingto a few of the competitors. this is a guy called ed cook,who had come over from england, where he had oneof the best-trained memories. and i said to him,"ed, when did you realize
that you were a savant?" and ed was like, "i'm not a savant. in fact, i have just an average memory. everybody who competesin this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory. we've all trained ourselves to performthese utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented2,500 years ago in greece, the same techniques that cicerohad used to memorize his speeches,
that medieval scholars had usedto memorize entire books." and i said, "whoa. how comei never heard of this before?" and we were standingoutside the competition hall, and ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant,but somewhat eccentric english guy, says to me, "josh, you'rean american journalist. do you know britney spears?" i'm like, "what? no. why?" "because i really wantto teach britney spears how to memorize the orderof a shuffled pack of playing cards
on u.s. national television. it will prove to the worldthat anybody can do this." i was like, "well, i'm not britney spears, but maybe you could teach me. i mean, you've got to startsomewhere, right?" and that was the beginningof a very strange journey for me. i ended up spendingthe better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also investigating it,
trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn't work, and what its potential might be. and i met a hostof really interesting people. this is a guy called e.p. he's an amnesic who had, very possibly, the worst memory in the world. his memory was so bad, that he didn't even rememberhe had a memory problem,
which is amazing. and he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extentto which our memories make us who we are. at the other endof the spectrum, i met this guy. this is kim peek, he was the basisfor dustin hoffman's character in the movie "rain man." we spent an afternoon togetherin the salt lake city public library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating.
and i went back and i reada whole host of memory treatises, treatises written 2,000-plusyears ago in latin, in antiquity, and then later,in the middle ages. and i learned a whole bunchof really interesting stuff. one of the really interestingthings that i learned is that once upon a time, this idea of having a trained,disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alienas it would seem to us to be today. once upon a time,people invested in their memories,
in laboriously furnishing their minds. over the last few millenia, we've invented a series of technologies -- from the alphabet, to the scroll, to the codex, the printingpress, photography, the computer, the smartphone -- that have made it progressivelyeasier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsourcethis fundamental human capacity.
these technologies have madeour modern world possible, but they've also changed us. they've changed us culturally, and i would argue that they'vechanged us cognitively. having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seemslike we've forgotten how. one of the last places on earthwhere you still find people passionate about this idea ofa trained, disciplined, cultivated memory, is at this totally singularmemory contest.
it's actually not that singular, there are contests heldall over the world. and i was fascinated,i wanted to know how do these guys do it. a few years back a group of researchersat university college london brought a bunch of memorychampions into the lab. they wanted to know: do these guys have brainsthat are somehow structurally, anatomically differentfrom the rest of ours? the answer was no.
are they smarter than the rest of us? they gave them a bunch of cognitive tests,and the answer was: not really. there was, however, one reallyinteresting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjectsthat they were comparing them to. when they put these guysin an fmri machine, scanned their brainswhile they were memorizing numbers and people's facesand pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions werelighting up different parts of the brain
than everyone else. of note, they were using,or they seemed to be using, a part of the brain that's involvedin spatial memory and navigation. why? and is there somethingthat the rest of us can learn from this? the sport of competitive memorizingis driven by a kind of arms race where, every year, somebody comes up with a newway to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the fieldhas to play catch-up. this is my friend ben pridmore,
three-time world memory champion. on his desk in front of himare 36 shuffled packs of playing cards that he is about to tryto memorize in one hour, using a technique that he inventedand he alone has mastered. he used a similar technique to memorize the precise orderof 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour. yeah. and while there are a whole host of ways
of remembering stuffin these competitions, everything, all of the techniquesthat are being used, ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer toas "elaborative encoding." and it's well-illustratedby a nifty paradox known as the baker/baker paradox,which goes like this: if i tell two peopleto remember the same word, if i say to you, "remember thatthere is a guy named baker."
that's his name. and i say to you, "rememberthat there is a guy who is a baker." okay? and i come back to youat some point later on, and i say, "do you remember that wordthat i told you a while back? do you remember what it was?" the person who was told his name is baker is less likely to remember the same word than the person was toldhis job is a baker.
same word, different amountof remembering; that's weird. what's going on here? well, the name bakerdoesn't actually mean anything to you. it is entirely untetheredfrom all of the other memories floating around in your skull. but the common noun "baker" --we know bakers. bakers wear funny white hats. bakers have flour on their hands. bakers smell goodwhen they come home from work.
maybe we even know a baker. and when we first hear that word, we start putting theseassociational hooks into it, that make it easier to fish itback out at some later date. the entire art of what is going onin these memory contests, and the entire art of rememberingstuff better in everyday life, is figuring out waysto transform capital b bakers into lower-case b bakers -- to take informationthat is lacking in context,
in significance, in meaning, and transform it in some way, so that it becomes meaningfulin the light of all the other things that you have in your mind. one of the more elaboratetechniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to ancient greece. it came to be known as the memory palace. the story behind its creationgoes like this: there was a poet called simonides,who was attending a banquet.
he was actually the hired entertainment, because back then, if you wantedto throw a really slamming party, you didn't hire a d.j., you hired a poet. and he stands up, delivers his poemfrom memory, walks out the door, and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses. kills everybody inside. it doesn't just kill everybody, it mangles the bodiesbeyond all recognition.
nobody can say who was inside, nobody can say where they were sitting. the bodies can't be properly buried. it's one tragedy compounding another. simonides, standing outside, the sole survivor amid the wreckage, closes his eyes and has this realization, which is that in his mind's eye, he can see where each of the guestsat the banquet had been sitting.
and he takes the relatives by the hand, and guides them eachto their loved ones amid the wreckage. what simonides figured out at that moment, is something that i thinkwe all kind of intuitively know, which is that, as bad as we areat remembering names and phone numbers, and word-for-word instructionsfrom our colleagues, we have really exceptionalvisual and spatial memories. if i asked you to recountthe first 10 words of the story that i just told you about simonides,
chances are you would havea tough time with it. but, i would wagerthat if i asked you to recall who is sitting on topof a talking tan horse in your foyer right now, you would be able to see that. the idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined edificein your mind's eye, and populate it with imagesof the things that you want to remember -- the crazier, weirder, more bizarre,
funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it's likely to be. this is advice that goesback 2,000-plus years to the earliest latin memory treatises. so how does this work? let's say that you've been invitedto ted center stage to give a speech, and you want to do it from memory, and you want to do it the waythat cicero would have done it, if he had been invitedto tedxrome 2,000 years ago.
what you might do is picture yourselfat the front door of your house. and you'd come up with some sortof crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image, to remind you that the first thingyou want to talk about is this totally bizarre contest. and then you'd go inside your house, and you would see an imageof cookie monster on top of mister ed. and that would remind you that you would want to thenintroduce your friend ed cook.
and then you'd seean image of britney spears to remind you of this funnyanecdote you want to tell. and you'd go into your kitchen, and the fourth topicyou were going to talk about was this strange journeythat you went on for a year, and you'd have some friendsto help you remember that. this is how roman oratorsmemorized their speeches -- not word-for-word, which is justgoing to screw you up, but topic-for-topic.
in fact, the phrase "topic sentence" -- that comes from the greek word "topos," which means "place." that's a vestige of when people usedto think about oratory and rhetoric in these sorts of spatial terms. the phrase "in the first place," that's like "in the first placeof your memory palace." i thought this was just fascinating, and i got really into it.
and i went to a few moreof these memory contests, and i had this notionthat i might write something longer about this subcultureof competitive memorizers. but there was a problem. the problem was that a memory contest is a pathologically boring event. truly, it is like a bunch of peoplesitting around taking the sats -- i mean, the most dramatic it gets is when somebodystarts massaging their temples.
and i'm a journalist,i need something to write about. i know that there's incredible stuffhappening in these people's minds, but i don't have access to it. and i realized, if i was goingto tell this story, i needed to walkin their shoes a little bit. and so i started tryingto spend 15 or 20 minutes every morning, before i satdown with my new york times, just trying to remember something. maybe it was a poem,
maybe it was names from an old yearbookthat i bought at a flea market. and i found that this was shockingly fun. i never would have expected that. it was fun because this is actuallynot about training your memory. what you're doing, is you're tryingto get better and better at creating, at dreaming up, these utterly ludicrous,raunchy, hilarious, and hopefully unforgettableimages in your mind's eye. and i got pretty into it.
this is me wearing my standardcompetitive memorizer's training kit. it's a pair of earmuffs and a set of safety gogglesthat have been masked over except for two small pinholes, because distraction is the competitivememorizer's greatest enemy. i ended up coming backto that same contest that i had covered a year earlier, and i had this notionthat i might enter it, sort of as an experimentin participatory journalism.
it'd make, i thought, maybea nice epilogue to all my research. problem was, the experiment went haywire. i won the contest -- which really wasn't supposed to happen. (applause) now, it is nice to be ableto memorize speeches and phone numbers and shopping lists, but it's actually kindof beside the point. these are just tricks.
they work because they're basedon some pretty basic principles about how our brains work. and you don't have to bebuilding memory palaces or memorizing packs of playing cards to benefit from a little bit of insightabout how your mind works. we often talk about peoplewith great memories as though it were some sortof an innate gift, but that is not the case. great memories are learned.
at the most basic level,we remember when we pay attention. we remember when we are deeply engaged. we remember when we are able to takea piece of information and experience, and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it's colorful, when we're able to transform itin some way that makes sense in the light of all of the otherthings floating around in our minds, when we're able to transformbakers into bakers. the memory palace,these memory techniques --
they're just shortcuts. in fact, they're noteven really shortcuts. they work because they make you work. they force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don't normallywalk around exercising. but there actually are no shortcuts. this is how stuff is made memorable. and i think if there's one thingthat i want to leave you with,
it's what e.p., the amnesic who couldn'teven remember he had a memory problem, left me with, which is the notion that our livesare the sum of our memories. how much are we willing to lose from our already short lives, by losing ourselvesin our blackberries, our iphones, by not paying attentionto the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we're notwilling to process deeply?
i learned firsthand that there are incrediblememory capacities latent in all of us. but if you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember. thank you.