The photographic memory is a myth, according to Joshua Foer, journalist, author, and a memory competition champion.
Instead, he views the ability to remember as a kind of acquired skill, one that need only be developed through training, by using a few tricks that date back as far as ancient Greece.
“Scientists have proven that memory is not an innate talent. Anyone can train themselves to do it,” said Foer, the author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything and a featured speaker at the March 3 JVS Creative Maturity Expo in Whippany.
About 200 people attended Foer’s talk at the expo, a day-long series of events at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus featuring workshops, products, speakers, and services for baby-boomers and mature adults.
The offerings included sessions on diet, exercise, and travel; health screenings by Saint Barnabas Medical Center and Atlantic Health; and a “Baby Boomer Boot Camp.” Jewish Vocational Service, the organizer, is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
In his talk, Foer described three commonly used tools for boosting memory: the Baker/baker Paradox, the Memory Palace, and the Major System.
In the Baker/baker Paradox, the trick is to attach someone’s name, like Baker, to a memorable image or series of images, like “a funny white hat, smelling good when you come home, having flour on your arms.”
“The entire art of memory is to figure out how to transform ‘Baker’ into ‘baker,’” said Foer. “You have to transform it so that it becomes meaningful.”
The Memory Palace was developed 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek poet Simonides. That system, said Foer, involves creating the mental image of a “spacious building you can move around in and are very familiar with and stocking its rooms with outlandish, sexy, or otherwise unforgettable associations with the items to be memorized.
“The more colorful, more unlikely the situation, the more likely you are to remember it,” Foer said. He demonstrated by creating a Passover shopping list “palace” that included one room in which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are swimming naked in a pool of milk, another dripping with cracked eggs, and a third room where attendants are feeding him parsley. At the end, nearly everyone in the room could recite the full list of items.
The third technique, known as the Major System, is used for memorizing random series of numbers. Each number is given a correlating letter or pair of letters which can then be formed into words or phrases. “It really works, but you have to take the time to learn the system,” said Foer.
Foer did: In his research for an article and then for his book on the subject, he entered and ended up winning a major memory competition.
“These are just tricks,” he advised. “At the most basic level, we have to remember to pay attention.”
Foer, by the way, gave his entire talk from memory.