A year after discovering it, I finally got around to reading Moonwalking with Einstein (affiliate link), by Joshua Foer. A journalist gets fascinated by memory championships, and takes on the challenge to participate himself. On the way he explains how to train your memory, and puts memory in a historical context.
Why am I interested in these types of books? Presentations are all about helping people remember your story. We all know that forcing people to remember bullet points be repeating and repeating and repeating them does not work. The brain needs a visual story around which to store your message.
And it turns out that is exactly what memory champions do. They commit random numbers, names, facts, to rooms in virtual memory palaces in their brain. These palaces are often based on places the contestants know very well: a home, a school, a library. In these rooms, the objects are placed in the most outrageous (memorable) ways possible, including smells and sounds. After you put everything there, you can simply take a walk in your virtual memory palace and see all objects in front of you.
Scientists now think that the brain actually never forgets anything (capacity: 10-100TB). The problem is accessing the information. The brain needs an emotional stimulus (smell, visual) to unlock its memory. Slightly different than a indexed memory access of a computer. People think that we are so good at remembering places, locations, stories is survival: how to find a place with food, and then more importantly, how to find the way back home was a more useful skill in the stone age than remembering phone numbers.
With these techniques, you can teach yourself to remember thousands of unrelated items. And it just shows the power of the brain. Remembering is actually pretty simple when compared to the computing power it takes to coordinate hitting a baseball mid air.
Scientist think that forgetting is important for our mental well being. Just remembering everything is very stressful and distracting. That is the reason why some people with brain dammage can perform these extraordinary memory stunts.
The book gives interesting insight in our learning process. The brain is lazy and tries to put things in auto-pilot mode as soon as possible (driving a car for example). Once there, it does not consume a lot of energy, and does not cause distraction to do other tasks. Sometimes people experience this with learning. The cure to this is to move yourself outside the comfort zone, start trying, and most important of all make sure you are exposed to a direct feedback loop to tell your brain what worked, and what did not.
But what is the point of memorizing anything in the current time of abundant digital storage? The author argues that creativity in fact is future memory. You need to be able to provide sufficient hooks to stick new ideas, new insights to.
An interesting read.