By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: March 8, 2011
By the time you get to the end of this column, your brain will have physically changed.
You will either be on the Curve of Forgetting or the Path to the Memory Palace.
Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” — just published and already No. 3 on the Amazon.com best-seller list — is both fun and reassuring. All it takes to have a better memory, he contends, are a few tricks and a good erotic imagination.
The 28-year-old author, who got a $1.2 million advance and a movie option, honed his mnemonic skills in the basement of his parents’ house. He is the youngest of the famous trio of literary Foer brothers, so accomplished so soon that they give the hypercompetitive Emanuel brothers a run for their money.
Esther Foer, the president of a public relations firm whose parents were Holocaust survivors and who was in a displaced-persons camp in Germany early in her childhood, and Albert Foer, a think-tank president, encouraged their sons over family dinners at their home here in Washington. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer told The New York Observer that the nightly conversation featured “its share of current events and historical discussion, and, you know, analysis of French symbolism … but also its share of fart jokes.”
Even in his early 20s, Joshua Foer was forgetting to remember a lot, given “the superficiality of our reading” and our “Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day.”
Things slipped his mind — from when to use “its” and “it’s” to his girlfriend’s birthday to his plethora of passwords.
“I’m not sure if I know more than four phone numbers by heart,” he says, citing a Trinity College Dublin survey showing that a third of Brits under 30 can’t remember their own home land-line number. “Our gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things anymore.”
He notes that “with our blogs and tweets, digital cameras, and unlimited-gigabyte e-mail archives, participation in the online culture now means creating a trail of always present, ever searchable, unforgetting external memories that only grows as one ages.”
Mark Twain once wrote the first letter of topics that he wanted to cover in a lecture on his fingernails. Soon we may be able to get Google on our fingernails to retrieve forgotten facts at a dinner party.
But what about internal memories? The experts claim that people of all ages can improve with technique, persistence, concentration and creativity. Foer set out to learn how to goose up the 3-pound mass of 100 billion neurons on his spine and ended up winning the 2006 United States Memory Championship in New York.
The basis of memory techniques is that the brain remembers visual imagery better than numbers, and erotic, exotic and exciting imagery best. So Foer asserts that you have to “take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.”
Brains formed in the hunter-gatherer era are now trying to excel in the tweeting-blogging era.
“When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind,” Foer writes. “Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex — and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”
He notes that Peter of Ravenna, author of the most famous memory textbook of the 15th century, said “if you wish to remember quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places.”
Memory grand master Ed Cooke, a young Brit who claims to have an average recall, teaches Foer some strategies. If you have a list to remember, you put the items in a path throughout a familiar place, like your childhood home. Imagine a person performing an action on an object. And try to throw in something lewd or bizarre. If you need to remember to get cottage cheese, Ed tells Josh, picture a tub of cottage cheese at the front door and visualize Claudia Schiffer swimming in it.
Ed coaches him in a system of memorizing a deck of cards in under two minutes that uses both familiar old memories and thrilling new pictures. Foer said his images devolved into “a handful of titillating acts that are still illegal in a few Southern states, and a handful of others that probably ought to be.”
The technique, he writes, “invariably meant inserting family members into scenes so raunchy I feared I was upgrading my memory at the expense of tormenting my subconscious. The indecent acts my own grandmother had to commit in the service of my remembering the eight of hearts are truly unspeakable (if not, as I might have previously guessed, unimaginable).
“I explained my predicament to Ed. He knew it well. ‘I eventually had to excise my mother from my deck,’ he said. ‘I recommend you do the same.’ ”