The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Joshua Foer Memory

We've forgotten to remember. Cognitive science has taught us that learning to retain information is easy, but that remembering to remember is hard. It started when we began to outsource what we previously were called to memorize to notes, books, and all the way to modern and contemporary technologies. We empty our brains as we fill the cloud with information and data.

In the Art of Memory, Frances Yates describes how the ancient Greeks believed in the importance of a trained memory—vital to everyone before the invention of printing—and thus created an elaborate memory system based on a technique of impressing “places” and “images” on the mind.

Genius was someone who could remember

Today we label geniuses people who can invent something new. In the Middle Ages the term genius was reserved for those with the best memories. Many of the books written and copied in that period had images at the margins to make it easier to associate a concept by use of visual representation.

In The Art of Memory Yates sheds light on aesthetics and psychology, the history of philosophy, science, and literature. Through examples like Dante's use of rhyme in the Divine Comedy for easier recall, the Roman art of rhetoric, the form of the Shakespearian theater, and the history of ancient architecture, she provides important insights into the architecture of the mind.

Even as The Art of Memory is not an “How To” book, Yates writes about a useful mental device for memory retrieval called “memory palace.” A memory palace is an imagined edifice in our mind’s eye we use to structure and store information. According to legend it was invented in the fifth century BC by Greek poet Simonides following his narrow escape from the collapse of a building. The story is that as he exited a banquet, the roof collapsed and everyone inside died.

Memory shortcuts through visuals and narrative

Simonides was able to identify the bodies by recalling where they were in the room moments prior to the collapse. We likely have experienced the power of our visual and spatial memories; the idea is to use this power to remember things by creating imagery and associations we won't forget.

Our brain also responds well to narrative, thus we make it easier on ourselves to understand and retain information when we plug it into stories.

For this I have a personal example from first grade. Our teacher made us memorize a very short story. In Italian, it basically says that someone put the nets (supposedly in the water) with great effort. The first couple of letters in each word correspond to the beginning of the name of each group of mountains in the alps. To this day, when I recall those names, I play that short story in my head. 

Training our memory is possible

American science writer Joshua Foer is also a well known mental athlete. He says, “memory is a playground,” a metaphor he learned from the person who trained him. “The act of making something memorable involves finding what is meaningful, significant and colorful in a piece of information or experience. The more fun you have with this, the stickier your memories will be.”

The author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer first became interested in the topic when he was called to cover the United States Memory Championship in New York City. Of the participants, he says:

They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once. They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes. They were competing to see who could memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest. I was like, this is unbelievable. These people must be freaks of nature.

And I started talking to a few of the competitors. This is a guy called Ed Cook, who had come over from England, where he had one of the best-trained memories. And I said to him, "Ed, when did you realize that you were a savant?"

And Ed was like, "I'm not a savant. In fact, I have just an average memory. Everybody who competes in this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory. We've all trained ourselves to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece, the same techniques that Cicero had used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books."

And I said, "Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?"

Cook suggested he could teach Foer to memorize things, that it wasn't that hard. He says:

that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me. ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also investigating it, trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn't work, and what its potential might be.

And I met a host of really interesting people. This is a guy called E.P. He's an amnesic who had, very possibly, the worst memory in the world. His memory was so bad, that he didn't even remember he had a memory problem, which is amazing. And he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extent to which our memories make us who we are.

At the other end of the spectrum, I met this guy. This is Kim Peek, he was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man." We spent an afternoon together in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating.

How we're forgetting to remember

Foer learned that people used to invest in their memories, and that the invention of many technologies like the alphabet, the scroll, the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, and the smartphone has made it easier to outsource our memories. He says:

These technologies have made our modern world possible, but they've also changed us. They've changed us culturally, and I would argue that they've changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems like we've forgotten how. 

This question started his investigation into how we remember. What if there was something different about those with the ability to memorize. The answer surprised him in two different ways.

One of the last places on Earth where you still find people passionate about this idea of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory, is at this totally singular memory contest. It's actually not that singular, there are contests held all over the world. And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.

1./ Their brains are not really that different

A few years back a group of researchers at University College London brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab. They wanted to know: Do these guys have brains that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours? The answer was no. Are they smarter than the rest of us? They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests, and the answer was: not really.

2./ With spatial memory/navigation ability as a notable exception

There was, however, one really interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects that they were comparing them to. When they put these guys in an fMRI machine, scanned their brains while they were memorizing numbers and people's faces and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were lighting up different parts of the brain than everyone else. Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using, a part of the brain that's involved in spatial memory and navigation. Why? And is there something that the rest of us can learn from this?

It comes down to  concept that psychologists call “elaboative encoding,” which is well illustrated by the Baker/baker paradox. Says Foer:

If I tell two people to remember the same word, if I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy named Baker." That's his name. And I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy who is a baker." Okay? And I come back to you at some point later on, and I say, "Do you remember that word that I told you a while back? Do you remember what it was?" The person who was told his name is Baker is less likely to remember the same word than the person was told his job is a baker. Same word, different amount of remembering; that's weird. What's going on here? 

It comes down to context, to the associations we make between a word and its visual representation.

Well, the name Baker doesn't actually mean anything to you. It is entirely untethered from all of the other memories floating around in your skull. But the common noun "baker" — we know bakers. Bakers wear funny white hats. Bakers have flour on their hands. Bakers smell good when they come home from work. Maybe we even know a baker. And when we first hear that word, we start putting these associational hooks into it, that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date.

The entire art of what is going on in these memory contests, and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life, is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers — to take information that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning, and transform it in some way, so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.

Remembering from topic-to-topic

This is how Roman orators did it. Instead of trying to recall a speech word-for-word, they worked on topics (from the Greek word "topos," which means "place.") Having a great memory is a learned skill, one we can train. Foer says:

At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged. We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience, and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it's colorful, when we're able to transform it in some way that makes sense in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds, when we're able to transform Bakers into bakers.

In his talk about making a difference with what we say, Ben Zander includes a lesson on learning to listen to and appreciate classical music by demonstrating the importance of visualization. The subject of Zander's experiment is Chopin's Prelude, a favorite. At minute 11:26 of his talk, as he is preparing to play it with one impulse to demonstrate, he says:

So this is a piece which goes from away to home. I'm going to play it all the way through and you're going to follow. B, C, B, C, B, C, B — down to A, down to G, down to F. Almost goes to E, but otherwise the play would be over. He goes back up to B, he gets very excited. Goes to F-sharp. Goes to E. It's the wrong chord. It's the wrong chord. And finally goes to E, and it's home.


Because for me, to join the B to the E, I have to stop thinking about every single note along the way, and start thinking about the long, long line from B to E.


This is about vision. This is about the long line. Like the bird who flies over the field and doesn't care about the fences underneath, all right? So now, you're going to follow the line all the way from B to E.

And I've one last request before I play this piece all the way through. Would you think of somebody who you adore, who's no longer there? A beloved grandmother, a lover — somebody in your life who you love with all your heart, but that person is no longer with you. Bring that person into your mind, and at the same time, follow the line all the way from B to E, and you'll hear everything that Chopin had to say.

That visualization is the association we need to bring Chopin's Prelude to life and it's we learn to remember its story.

Joshua Foer says the memory palace and other memory techniques are just some sort of shortcuts that work because they make us work.They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don't normally walk around exercising. But there actually are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable.


As we go about forging a memorable life through our ability to remember or the acquired skill to do so, we should also remember that forgetting is an important part of learning for two reasons — 1./ it teaches us to abstract; 2./ we sometimes need to unlearn what we think we know to open our mind and explore new knowledge.

Watch the video of Joshua Foer's talk below.


For a more in depth exploration of the topic, in addition to Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, read Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It by Kenneth L. Higbee and The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas.