Skip to main content

Nate’s Notes 23: Memory & Time Collapse

By March 31, 2022June 8th, 2023No Comments

Could you memorize a 1000 digits of pi? Or the order of a shuffled deck of cards in minutes? You probably don’t want to. But you could. And it’s not as hard as you might think. Several years ago I told my law professor, Joe Bankman, that I hated how much I forget. I was standing in his personal library, wondering if he forgot as many books as I did. Joe responded, “Have you read the book Moonwalking with Einstein? It teaches you how to remember.”

I ordered the book from Amazon that evening, and it changed my life. For example, since reading that book, I have taken more than 50,000 pictures. Moonwalking with Einstein shares the story of Josh Foer, a science writer who was covering the U.S. memory championship. At the competition, Josh interviewed one of the competitors, a quirky Brit name Ed Cook. Josh asked Ed, “When did you realize you were a genius with a photographic memory?” Ed laughed and responded, “Photographic memories are a detestable myth and no one here is a genius…in fact all of our memories are actually quite normal.”

Josh didn’t believe Ed…”But you guys can memorize thousands of digits of pi. A shuffled deck of cards in minutes. No normal person can do that.”

Ed responded, “Oh yeah? I can prove to you we’re normal…just let me teach you our techniques. If you practice them, you’ll be able to do the same things.” Josh agreed, and just one year later, Josh Foer the journalist, became Josh Foer the U.S. memory champion.

So how did Josh do it. How did he go from average Joe to national memory champion? The short answer is two words: elaborate encoding. If you want to improve your memory, you need to improve your ability to encode your memories. Build an elaborate web of context around things you want to remember, and you won’t forget them. For example, song lyrics are memorable because the music creates an elaborate web around the words. Though we struggle to remember names, which are essentially just abstract sounds…we’re pretty good at remembering faces, because every part of a face has a relationship with other parts of the face. A face is an elaborate web of context.

Scientists call this the Baker/baker paradox. Ask someone to remember the name Baker, and they’ll forget it. But ask someone to remember the job baker, and they’ll remember it. But why? The name Baker is abstract…no elaborate webs, no connections. However, when we hear the job baker we see someone wearing a white hat, who smells like bread and has dough on their hands and face. The job baker is an elaborate web.

We see the same effect with chess grandmasters. They can play multiple game of chess simultaneously, while blindfolded. Researchers first assumed that grandmasters had different brains than the rest of us, that they had photographic memories. But then the researchers conducted an interesting experiment…they arranged chess pieces on the board randomly, and suddenly the grandmasters performed no better than the rest of us. They could only remember the locations of about 7 pieces. No web of context, no memory.

To improve our memories we simply have to learn to think in more memorable ways. And if elaborate encoding is the most important principle of memory, the memory palace is the most important technique.

Do this experiment. Think of your current home and place an image of Albert Einstein moonwalking on a rug on your front porch. See his white hair, hear his feet rustling on the rug, and notice his messy clothes. Then walk past Albert through your front door and place an image of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball. Notice how high he jumps, how small the ball is in his hand, and how out of place the hoop is in your house. Next walk to your living room and place an image of Beyonce singing on the coffee table. Hear her powerful voice rattle your ears, notice her elaborate costume, and how the coffee table shakes under her feet.

Placing images in locations we know well creates elaborate webs that are memorable. This makes sense when considering our ancestors. They didn’t need to remember phone numbers or addresses, but they did need to remember where to find food and how to get home. Our memory for spaces, called spatial memory, is astonishingly good. For example, by wandering around Disneyland for a few hours, we can remember the whereabouts of hundreds or even thousands of objects, for years after, all without hardly trying.

In fact, you probably aren’t trying hard to remember the 3 people I described earlier…but if I asked you later today to remember the three people, plus their 3 actions, plus the three objects they were doing their actions on, you’d likely recall those 9 bits of information. By walking through a memory palace in our mind, we can easily remember 1000s of bits of information…far more information than the 7 bits of random things we can hold in our short term memory.

The key to using a memory palace is to create images that are funny, colorful, loud, lewd, and bizarre…the more outlandish the more memorable…the thicker the web. Memorizing then becomes an exercise in creativity rather than an exercise in memory.

When I first learned about the memory palace, I thought it was fascinating…but impractical…I figured I’d never use it. But just 3 years later I had to pass a qualifying exam to earn my phd, an exam which required me to memorize the main idea, author name, and publication date of 800 academic articles. Without a memory palace I would have been stuck using brute force…flash cards. And it would have been miserable. But instead, I created 40 different memory palaces, and then placed 20 articles in each of the memory palaces. I then created a memory palace to remember the 40 memory palaces. When I took my two-day exam it was as simple as taking a mental stroll through my childhood home, my first apartment, and the other 38 memory palaces I had created.

Not surprisingly, memory champions take memory one step further and combine multiple techniques, such as memorizing a person, action, and object for every number from 0-100. For example the number 23 could be Michael Jordan (a person) slam dunking (the action) a basketball (the object), the number 55 could be Albert Einstein, moonwalking, on a rug, and the number 81 could be Beyonce, singing, on a coffee table. Any 6 digit number can then be turned into a single image by taking the person from the first two numbers, the action from the middle two numbers and the object from the final two numbers. For example the 6 digit number 23 55 81 would be Michael Jordan, moonwalking, on a coffee table. The number 81 23 55 would be Beyonce, slam dunking, a rug. Place those images in a memory palace, and that’s how you memorize 1000s of digits of pi; and similar techniques are used to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards.

But so what, why does this matter.

A lesson I keep learning over and again, is that when I see someone do something that I think is impossible for me…  speak a foreign language fluently, give a 30 minute speech from memory, or get admitted to a competitive school, I remind myself that there are specific techniques I can learn that will help me…so I should believe in myself…especially if I can get the right coaching.

But there’s another lesson about memory as well…one I learned from the French scientist Michael Siffre. Siffre spent two months in total isolation in a subterranean glacier, with no clocks, no daylight, no chronological landmarks, and no one to talk to. Siffre expected that his perception of time would lengthen…if time flies when we’re having fun, time should crawl when we have nothing to do.

Yet when Siffre emerged from the cave two months later, he thought only one month had passed. Time hadn’t slowed down for him…it had sped up. Every two days had melded into one. When we don’t have new experiences, or when we forget past experiences, our days and months start collapsing.

For this reason, I take pictures and record videos every day: pictures of every restaurant I eat at with my wife, videos of my children right after they lose their first tooth telling me how it happened, and pictures of the gas gauge in my car when it says 6 miles until empty, as I’m driving across Wyoming at 2:22 am in December in freezing temperatures, and gale winds, wondering how far away the next gas station is, and if I’d be able to survive a run to the gas station and get back to the car with the gas before my sleeping family gets frostbite. I want to create more chronological landmarks, more elaborate webs.

Of all the things we can obsess about collecting, said Josh Foer, memories may be one of the best. I want to remember my life. I want to remember the experiences I’ve had, and the things I’ve learned. I don’t want my days and years to collapse. And pictures and videos help us create more webs. And so do audio journals such as this podcast.

In summary, kids, to improve your memory, create elaborate webs. To improve your abilities, learn the right techniques. And to lengthen and enrich your life, create chronological landmarks.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

Get Nates Notes In Your Inbox

Subscribe to Nates Notes to receive a summary of each podcast episode delivered to your Inbox.