Feats of memory anyone can do | Joshua Foer

Feats of memory anyone can do | Joshua Foer

I’d like to invite you to close your eyes. Imagine yourself standing
outside the front door of your home. I’d like you to notice
the color of the door, the material that it’s made out of. Now visualize a pack
of overweight nudists on bicycles. (Laughter) They are competing
in a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straight
for your front door. I need you to actually see this. They are pedaling
really hard, they’re sweaty, they’re bouncing around a lot. And they crash straight
into 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 door
into your foyer, your hallway, whatever’s on the other side, and appreciate the quality of the light. The light is shining
down on Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is waving at you
from his perch on top of a tan horse. It’s a talking horse. You can practically feel
his blue fur tickling your nose. You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie
that 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 dancing
on 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 been
paved over with a yellow brick road, and out of your oven are coming
towards you Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion
from “The Wizard of Oz,” hand-in-hand, skipping
straight towards you. Okay. Open your eyes. I want to tell you
about a very bizarre contest that is held every spring
in New York City. It’s called the United States
Memory Championship. And I had gone to cover
this contest a few years back as a science journalist, expecting, I guess, that this was going
to be like the Superbowl of savants. This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both age
and hygienic upkeep. (Laughter) They were memorizing
hundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once. They were memorizing the names of dozens
and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing
entire poems in just a few minutes. They were competing
to see who could memorize the order of a shuffled pack
of playing cards the fastest. I was like, this is unbelievable. These people must be freaks of nature. And I started talking
to a few of the competitors. This is a guy called Ed Cook,
who had come over from England, where he had one
of 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 competes
in this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory. We’ve all trained ourselves to perform
these utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented
2,500 years ago in Greece, the same techniques that Cicero
had used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars had used
to memorize entire books.” And I said, “Whoa. How come
I never heard of this before?” And we were standing
outside the competition hall, and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant,
but somewhat eccentric English guy, says to me, “Josh, you’re
an American journalist. Do you know Britney Spears?” I’m like, “What? No. Why?” “Because I really want
to teach Britney Spears how to memorize the order
of a shuffled pack of playing cards on U.S. national television. It will prove to the world
that anybody can do this.” (Laughter) I was like, “Well, I’m not Britney Spears, but maybe you could teach me. I mean, you’ve got to start
somewhere, right?” And that was the beginning
of a very strange journey for me. I ended up spending
the 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 host
of 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 remember
he had a memory problem, which is amazing. And he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extent
to which our memories make us who we are. At the other end
of the spectrum, I met this guy. This is Kim Peek, he was the basis
for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man.” We spent an afternoon together
in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating. (Laughter) And I went back and I read
a whole host of memory treatises, treatises written 2,000-plus
years ago in Latin, in antiquity, and then later,
in the Middle Ages. And I learned a whole bunch
of really interesting stuff. One of the really interesting
things that I learned is that once upon a time, this idea of having a trained,
disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien
as 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 printing
press, photography, the computer, the smartphone — that have made it progressively
easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource
this fundamental human capacity. These technologies have made
our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed us. They’ve changed us culturally, and I would argue that they’ve
changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems
like we’ve forgotten how. One of the last places on Earth
where you still find people passionate about this idea of
a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory, is at this totally singular
memory contest. It’s actually not that singular, there are contests held
all over the world. And I was fascinated,
I wanted to know how do these guys do it. A few years back a group of researchers
at University College London brought a bunch of memory
champions into the lab. They wanted to know: Do these guys have brains
that are somehow structurally, anatomically different
from 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 really
interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects
that they were comparing them to. When they put these guys
in an fMRI machine, scanned their brains
while they were memorizing numbers and people’s faces
and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were
lighting 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 involved
in spatial memory and navigation. Why? And is there something
that the rest of us can learn from this? The sport of competitive memorizing
is driven by a kind of arms race where, every year, somebody comes up with a new
way to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the field
has to play catch-up. This is my friend Ben Pridmore, three-time world memory champion. On his desk in front of him
are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards that he is about to try
to memorize in one hour, using a technique that he invented
and he alone has mastered. He used a similar technique to memorize the precise order
of 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour. (Laughter) Yeah. And while there are a whole host of ways of remembering stuff
in these competitions, everything, all of the techniques
that are being used, ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer to
as “elaborative encoding.” And it’s well-illustrated
by a nifty paradox known as the Baker/baker paradox,
which goes like this: If I tell two people
to remember the same word, if I say to you, “Remember that
there is a guy named Baker.” That’s his name. And I say to you, “Remember
that there is a guy who is a baker.” Okay? And I come back to you
at some point later on, and I say, “Do you remember that word
that 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 told
his job is a baker. Same word, different amount
of remembering; that’s weird. What’s going on here? Well, the name Baker
doesn’t actually mean anything to you. It is entirely untethered
from 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 good
when they come home from work. Maybe we even know a baker. And when we first hear that word, we start putting these
associational hooks into it, that make it easier to fish it
back out at some later date. The entire art of what is going on
in these memory contests, and the entire art of remembering
stuff better in everyday life, is figuring out ways
to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers — to take information
that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning, and transform it in some way, so that it becomes meaningful
in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind. One of the more elaborate
techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece. It came to be known as the memory palace. The story behind its creation
goes like this: There was a poet called Simonides,
who was attending a banquet. He was actually the hired entertainment, because back then, if you wanted
to throw a really slamming party, you didn’t hire a D.J., you hired a poet. And he stands up, delivers his poem
from 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 bodies
beyond 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 guests
at the banquet had been sitting. And he takes the relatives by the hand, and guides them each
to their loved ones amid the wreckage. What Simonides figured out at that moment, is something that I think
we all kind of intuitively know, which is that, as bad as we are
at remembering names and phone numbers, and word-for-word instructions
from our colleagues, we have really exceptional
visual and spatial memories. If I asked you to recount
the first 10 words of the story that I just told you about Simonides, chances are you would have
a tough time with it. But, I would wager
that if I asked you to recall who is sitting on top
of 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 edifice
in your mind’s eye, and populate it with images
of 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 goes
back 2,000-plus years to the earliest Latin memory treatises. So how does this work? Let’s say that you’ve been invited
to TED center stage to give a speech, and you want to do it from memory, and you want to do it the way
that Cicero would have done it, if he had been invited
to TEDxRome 2,000 years ago. (Laughter) What you might do is picture yourself
at the front door of your house. And you’d come up with some sort
of crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image, to remind you that the first thing
you want to talk about is this totally bizarre contest. (Laughter) And then you’d go inside your house, and you would see an image
of Cookie Monster on top of Mister Ed. And that would remind you that you would want to then
introduce your friend Ed Cook. And then you’d see
an image of Britney Spears to remind you of this funny
anecdote you want to tell. And you’d go into your kitchen, and the fourth topic
you were going to talk about was this strange journey
that you went on for a year, and you’d have some friends
to help you remember that. This is how Roman orators
memorized their speeches — not word-for-word, which is just
going 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 used
to think about oratory and rhetoric in these sorts of spatial terms. The phrase “in the first place,” that’s like “in the first place
of your memory palace.” I thought this was just fascinating, and I got really into it. And I went to a few more
of these memory contests, and I had this notion
that I might write something longer about this subculture
of competitive memorizers. But there was a problem. The problem was that a memory contest is a pathologically boring event. (Laughter) Truly, it is like a bunch of people
sitting around taking the SATs — I mean, the most dramatic it gets is when somebody
starts massaging their temples. And I’m a journalist,
I need something to write about. I know that there’s incredible stuff
happening in these people’s minds, but I don’t have access to it. And I realized, if I was going
to tell this story, I needed to walk
in their shoes a little bit. And so I started trying
to spend 15 or 20 minutes every morning, before I sat
down with my New York Times, just trying to remember something. Maybe it was a poem, maybe it was names from an old yearbook
that 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 actually
not about training your memory. What you’re doing, is you’re trying
to get better and better at creating, at dreaming up, these utterly ludicrous,
raunchy, hilarious, and hopefully unforgettable
images in your mind’s eye. And I got pretty into it. This is me wearing my standard
competitive memorizer’s training kit. (Laughter) It’s a pair of earmuffs and a set of safety goggles
that have been masked over except for two small pinholes, because distraction is the competitive
memorizer’s greatest enemy. I ended up coming back
to that same contest that I had covered a year earlier, and I had this notion
that I might enter it, sort of as an experiment
in participatory journalism. It’d make, I thought, maybe
a nice epilogue to all my research. Problem was, the experiment went haywire. I won the contest — (Laughter) which really wasn’t supposed to happen. (Applause) Now, it is nice to be able
to memorize speeches and phone numbers and shopping lists, but it’s actually kind
of beside the point. These are just tricks. They work because they’re based
on some pretty basic principles about how our brains work. And you don’t have to be
building memory palaces or memorizing packs of playing cards to benefit from a little bit of insight
about how your mind works. We often talk about people
with great memories as though it were some sort
of 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 take
a 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 it
in some way that makes sense in the light of all of the other
things floating around in our minds, when we’re able to transform
Bakers into bakers. The memory palace,
these memory techniques — they’re just shortcuts. In fact, they’re not
even 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 normally
walk around exercising. But there actually are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable. And I think if there’s one thing
that I want to leave you with, it’s what E.P., the amnesic who couldn’t
even remember he had a memory problem, left me with, which is the notion that our lives
are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives, by losing ourselves
in our Blackberries, our iPhones, by not paying attention
to the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we’re not
willing to process deeply? I learned firsthand that there are incredible
memory 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. (Applause)

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. Is there any VERY GOOD method I can use to memorize (FOREVER) all 2300 kanji from japanese language? Each kanji has from two to five different readings. Sigh…

  2. الموضوع عن الذاكرة لازم يقحمون النجاسة والعري والبذاءة في الموضوع الله يقلعك انت وذاكرتك المعفنة

  3. Really awesome Joshua. I'm reading his book "Moonwalking with Einstein" and it's fascinating. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Божечки, как же скучно! Информацию двух предложений он умудрился на 20 минут растянуть. Сплошная вода, даже в моем дипломе столько не было. Джошуа Фор верни мне, блеать, 20 минут моей жизни!

  5. But there is something intriguing about this. Are Autistic savants using these tricks? I think not. They have access to the memories whereas what this guy is telling us is how normal people can access the memories. Right?

  6. Brought here from the book “A Mind for Numbers” by Barbara Oakley, it talks about the memory palace technique in much more depth.

  7. My psych teacher linked me here. Sort of. She copied the link onto a document, then printed out the document and gave it to me.

  8. This really helps…i was here a 3 years back. Loci method helped me alot in my studies.
    Now here to thanks jousha and TED.

  9. In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our firends. King Jr. Saludos desde Tijuana

  10. This talk reminded me of 14 years ago when I was able to remember all the dialogues of Finding Nemo movie. Now I realise how I was able to do so.

  11. I love how a lot of Americans always go up a pitch with their voice when speaking, as if every thing they said was a question? That´s just amazing? Great talk however?

  12. I began building my own mind palace after this, and have had it for nearly a year now. I fill it with facts i dont want to forget, phrases i want to remember, and even song titles I want to look up later. I started with an empty house that i must approach to enter, and it grows more vivid every time.

    Sidenote: i found this can also work in controlling memories that cause anxiety. In the backyard of my palace, I created a black hole in the ground, that i cover with one of those twist-top man-hole-like cover things. Every time i come across something i cant handle dwelling on, i unscrew the top and drop it inside, and reseal it. This works more and more every time i do it.

  13. Such a POWERFUL strategy. I utilized this during a competitive Speech season, and it’s truly the reason I achieved State Champion in Impromptu speaking. Memorizing visualizations that represent stories/topics I tended to want to talk about….. I was “prepared” with ideas for each speech although many people didn’t know how. Very powerful too. Master this, people!!

  14. All these people do not actually explain what they did to train their memories. Why they don't say: I read this book and include the author; It's always and I am quoting Mr. Foer's words" I spent a year investigating ancient data on memory…" just say clearly what steps, books, (not ancient techniques used by ancient Greeks or "investigating memory "bla bla bla) Explain in short a method. Why don't he list books he had read.

  15. I'm learning to speak english with aplication Mosalingua or Mosalearning, and I seen this video becouse of this aplication…this video is very great.

  16. "And i said woahow, how come I never heard of this before? " he should have answered that by saying " because the education system will go bankrupt and no one will take student loans and then many things will happen accordingly like self taught phd level experts with no certification as well as home schooled game addicted genius children who have no need of leaving their home cuz they have ways of making money online that they taught themselves by memorising some books the stumbled upon in their school library. …back in the day when they still went to school. .. and now although still teens they each have a phd understanding of some feild of science ….this is a detailed description of a nightmare that the minister of education has form time to time till he woke up in sweat and said to his wife : i must , *out of breath * i must with the help of media and the gov , hide every trace possible of the modern and ancient memory enhancing techniques from public to avoid such a disaster! …
    His wife then says: i will go and make some coffe want some with your eggs and ham?
    He then says after swallowing realising what he sounded like gulp : yes please , that would be nice . *still breathing heavily but not as hard as before *…
    Ofc if he said something remotely close in his talk like against the gov or edu systems ….the least of his problems would be banned ted talk , then arrested or just assassination . Maybe dissappear. So here i am fbi , nsa and interpol etc… i am explaining why non of our curriculums contains such ancient techs to improve our learning , we are being ripped of and fooled into thinking we need to pay for and edu because we cant possibly teach anything to ourselves nor self develop our skills unless we pay some group of experts (uni ) to that for us… once people realise this they will stop paying and going or sending their family members to such places (its personal as well since i hate my uni so u can imagine alk the emotional struggle i am going through watching this video and writing this comment. … i am kind of venting but notnin private so i am hoping someone sees this while not really caring if no one sees it…. so do not take this comment the wrong way while parts are serious others are jokes…u decide whih are which )
    So come and get me if you think i am wrong . This kind of thing should be taught at pre school, high school , uni and companies and money that is spent on higher edu can be spent onnthe certification but in a different way , convince me otherwise (fyi : i am lacking sleep as i am writing this)

  17. This does not work…i havr already watched this video a long time ago and have forgotten about it completely . I looked at the thumbnail and thought "this look interesting " the half way through i remembered that i have watched it …. what a useless piece of junk i have of an excuse that calls it's self a brain i did not phrase that properly but i am sleepy and i dont care…bye

  18. This was so helpful.I had no idea about everything he just talked about.I’ve always thought having good memory was a feat only a genius can master.This makes me feel better about myself.And I think Joshua sums it up very well at the end:A good memory enriches our lives and our experiences.

  19. This was so helpful.I had no idea about everything he just talked about.I’ve always thought having good memory was a feat only a genius can master.This makes me feel better about myself.And I think Joshua sums it up very well at the end:A good memory enriches our lives and our experiences.

  20. So to sum it up , to memorise things:

    put in effort to make highly visual thoughts and stories about what you want to remember.

    when doing this , have no distraction

    the Roman orators used these tricks

  21. i am used to do this in school when i had to remember 2 and more pages of topics . so what i use to do is create a story as line prgogress new things happends to main character . when i need to answer those 2 pages then i just play that whole story like video and lines and paragrhaphs keep coming in mind. that time it was so easy for me currently cant' do that easily.

  22. This is so amazing when you remember things by making a visual representation in your head. Thumbs up if you memorized the story he gave us to visualize in the beginning.

  23. I cringed when he mentioned blackberries and iPhones as if blackberries were as relevant as Androids!
    Great video nevertheless. Some people might think more visually than others, but everyone can learn to improve their memory by association.

  24. Thanks so much for this. I just did a ten minute presentation at work based on the memory palace principles. Aced the speech with near-total accuracy…and didn't refer to my notes one bit.

  25. why would he think of those people as "freaks of nature" instead of geniuses? I don't think the guy is a very nice person to know.

  26. You question why they don't teach these in schools. Teachers are there to teach you, but they never teach you how to use your own brain. It's like having a powerful tool, but no one ever tells you how to use it.

  27. I told a friend 'you have a bad memory" he replied "I do to' I said 'no you don't' he replied "yes I do" i said 'no you don't" he replied "yes i do' I said "no you don't" he replied "don't what?"

  28. A normal conversation

  29. Thank you Joshua for introducing me to this, used in my public law exams, memorised Lord Bingham 8 sub rules on rule of law and then the chapters that followed, not saying that it can work for everything but it may

  30. mientras buscaba las cajas de ficheros encontre esto: https://emowe.com/tecnica-memorizacion-loci-palacio-memoria/

  31. I need help my girlfriend will kill me !!
    The naked people still in my imaginary house , how I can kick them out ?

  32. wait, so, Brittany Spears —i.m a bit confused– finally, which is it? is chicken of the seas chicken or tuna ?

  33. Very similar sounding to a book I read by Dominic O'brien – Learn to Remember. I can’t believe they don’t teach this in school!

  34. Sooooo exactly WHAT are the tricks to use to remember stuff??? None of that was really mentioned in depth….

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