Sunday, 1 September 2013

On Memory

Probably the most enjoyable book I read over the summer was "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer. In it he describes his journey from covering the US memory championships in 2005 as a science journalist to winning it the following year; with the help of various gurus including UK memory grand master Ed Cooke. Along the way he offers multiple digressions on the history and science of memory.

Foer wins the Championships by learning a series of well established memory techniques like the Method of loci, or Memory Palace. This technique, also popularised by illusionist Derren Brown, enables the user to memorise long lists of items or numbers by coming up with a striking visual representations and then placing them on a route around a well-known location. It is effective because it taps into our much more powerful visual and special memory rather than relying on standard rote learning.

Foer also picks up some more advanced tricks such as the PAO system for remembering six digit numbers. This works by assigning an arbitrary Person, Action and Object to every two digit number; so 38 could be David Cameron eating a kebab; 47 might be Ed Miliband bouncing on a space hopper and 98 Nick Clegg talking to a toddler. After encoding all two digit numbers any six digit number can be remembered by combining the person from the first number; the action from the second and the object from the third. So 384798 is Cameron bouncing on a toddler.

While PAO and some of the other more complex systems are unnecessary unless you want to baffle your friends or win memory championships, the basic techniques actually have quite a lot of utility for people who do need to remember a lot of information such as schoolchildren preparing for an exam. Dan Willingham includes a list of such mnemonic techniques on p.59 of "Why Don't Students Like School?"* And nearly all of us will remember at least one or two mnemonics passed on during childhood (for some reason I always remember how to spell "necessary" by thinking "never-eat-cake-eat-smoked-salmon-and-remain-young").

Foer includes a fairly cursory discussion of the potential education benefits of more systematic mnemonics citing Bronx schoolteacher Raemon Matthews who became nationally known for his startling success with students using memory techniques and won several teacher of the year awards (before being stuck off - after the book's publication - for sexual misconduct).

This isn't much to go on but I did find myself wondering whether many teachers in the UK systematically teach their pupils how to remember more easily (as opposed to using the occasional mnemonic). It's not something I've seen widely discussed despite the seemingly endless debates on the value of memorised facts over generic skills. It would certainly be fascinating to run an RCT to investigate the value of memory techniques. The potential irony is that learning a set of skills might enable children to remember a lot more facts.

There is a deeper question, of course, as to whether the sort of memorising still required for exams is actually useful at all. Foer acknowledges that, of course, memorising masses of information does not make a person intelligent - indeed many of the memory champions that turn up in his book are almost comically unsuccessful in any of their real-life endeavours. And he includes a poignant meeting with the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, who remembered the complete content of over 9,000 books yet could do absolutely nothing with the information but party tricks.

Despite this Foer ends up taking the E.D. Hirsch line that memory is essential in providing the conceptual framework for the further development of ideas. As he puts it:

"It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory...but memory and intelligence to seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There's a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded in the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world."

And not only is memory a facet of intelligence it is also vital to our shared sense of humanity:

"How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humour in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character."

* Willingham says he's not a fan of method of loci because they are "hard to use for different sets of material" - e.g. if he uses a walk around his house to memorise the periodic table can he use the same walk for French verbs? Foer makes it pretty clear in his book that you can't use the same route for two different sets of information so have to have multiple routes available to you (your house; your parents house; work; the park etc...).


  1. This is really interesting. I commented on another blog a while ago that it's not just the UK that seems to fail to teach memory. I have taught in China, in an education system that seems to prize memory above all else, and they don't appear to do any memory training here, either. Makes me quite optimistic: if we did start introducing memory training into schools, could there be a real boost in student performance?

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