Written by a journalist getting interested in memory techniques - from the start of his interest to interviews with active memory athletes, up to his participation in memory competitions. A real funny and interesting read, as besides his personal story he also speaks about what he learned about the history and background around the topic of memory and remembering, including recent scientific findings.
Some points I try to take with me from this book:
Baker/baker paradox: introducing a person as a baker (profession) as opposed to having the name Baker seems to make the connection more memorable!
stories and their ‘images’ are kind of subject to evolution and selection, as can be observed in spoken transmission of stories, where more memorable versions have a better chance of ‘reproduction’ - reminding of meme selection. Similar things can be observed in Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey
As with so many other things, writing was initially considered dangerous: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls … they will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. … What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.”
scriptio continua: the first writings had no spaces between words, no punctuation etc. As they were also written onto scrolls, there was no random access to information - the writing was just for remembering. Chapters, page numbers, indices, table of contents are all later inventions.
ad rerum vs ad verbum memory: learning of the main content points vs learning verbatim. Before writing, learning mostly was about ad rerum, since exact words could not be kept. Only with writing, authors could refine their texts so that every word had its exact place, so also the basis for ad verbum learning was given only then.
OK Plateau: definition of a plateau in learning a new skill, where the learner essentially has the feeling that his skills are ‘ok’. This leads to the learner not further improving in that skill anymore. Overcoming this OK Plateau requires special, explicit effort and focus on improvements, eg through focus on very specific parts of the skill.
As rote memorization over time was considered differently, with a more negative value, education changed accordingly away from pure memorization of facts to more of reasoning and experiencing. There might be a slight come back of memorization coming now, as it becomes clearer that at least certain facts should be base knowledge and that factual knowledge is required to fit and bind further knowledge.
You can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
Quote from Tony Busan: “In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus. The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future. Creativity, is in a sense, future memory.”
Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the Muses …
The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counterintuitive. Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory.
This is what the art of memory was ultimately most useful for. It was not merely a tool for recording but also a tool of invention and composition. The realization that composing depended on a well-furnished and securely available memory formed the basis of rhetorical education in antiquity. Brains were as organized as modern filing cabinets, with important facts, quotations and ideas stuffed into neat mnemonic cubbyholes, where they would never go missing, and where they could be recombined and strung together on the fly. The goal of training one’s memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas.
Closer towards the end, Foer discusses the amazing things our brain does effortlessly, like catching a ball. But these amazing feats cannot be used directly at the low level, rather in the context of a top-level processing. In that context, he mentions that when learning to draw, one of the first exercises are tracing negative space and contour lines, ie to focus on low-level details so much as to frustrate the top-level conscious processing to activate the lower-level, latent perceptual processing that actually sees the abstract shapes and lines instead of ,eg, a chair, per se. This is one of the things I also took away from Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.