Memory Champion Joshua Foer Reveals Secrets of the Brain

Building a "memory palace" not just a parlor trick -- it can help in daily life.

March 23, 2011, 4:05 PM

March 23, 2011— -- Six years ago, science writer Joshua Foer was just like the rest of us, forgetting where he left his car keys, what he needed to buy at the grocery store and even his girlfriend's phone number.

Twelve months later, he became the U.S. memory champion.

"Not only did I win, I actually set a new U.S. record by memorizing a deck of playing cards in a minute and 40 seconds," said Foer, who recently wrote a book on his experiences titled "Moonwalking With Einstein."

Foer trained himself to become a memory athlete, someone who regularly tries to memorize lists of hundreds of numbers and words.

It might sound like an incredible feat, but such people's brains aren't any different than a normal person's. They just tap into different parts of the mind to turn mundane lists into vivid, lasting memories.

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Employing techniques that date back to the Greeks, memory champions like Foer create "memory palaces" that rely on the human brain's natural advantage with spatial and visual memory. They think up images to represent everything they want to remember -- the more outlandish or shocking the better.

If you're trying to remember a microwave, for example, "maybe it's frying a cat or something. Something you're really not going to want ... but it'll be colorful," Foer said.

Once envisioned, these images are stored inside the rooms of the palace, an imaginary building in the brain that can be anything from a childhood home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"We're visual creatures," Foer added. "Probably, when we were hunter gatherers ... that was the kind of thing that mattered. And remembering, say, phone numbers was, like, not that important when you're hunting down a mastodon or whatever."

Foer found cutting-edge neuroscience proving the notion that the people who are best at memorizing really do use their brains differently.

One study scanned memory champions with MRIs and discovered that the spatial part of their brain lights up when they try to remember things. Another study of London cab drivers found that memorizing the complex street grid made parts of their brains larger than average.

"There is nothing special, nothing biologically special about anyone who's a memory champion. They're simply using a different strategy," said Narender Ramnani, a professor with Royal Holloway, University of London, who has researched memory and the brain.

Using Memory Tricks in Everyday Life

Memorizing a deck of cards might seem like a quirky parlor trick, but experts say that techniques like the "memory palace" can make a difference in everyday life.

If you're trying to remember things you need to buy at the store on the way home, envision your house with the butter in the living room and the soap on the stairs.

And what about where you left your keys? Some experts recommended that when you set them down, take a mental snap shot of the exact spot to help you when you're looking for them later.

Everyone struggles to remember people's names, but one trick you can use is to associate a name with a vivid image. The name John Corn, for instance, becomes a toilet bowl sitting a field of corn ... that's on fire.

Foer took such memory tricks to an extreme, training daily with special goggles and ear muffs to block out distractions in his quest to be a memory champion. But for the rest of us who just want to make life a little easier, no special equipment is required -- just our imagination.

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