Memory Training Crash Course, Part I

A book I picked up on a whim, way back in high school, was Harry Lorayne's How to Develop a Superpower Memory. As you can see, I still own my original battered, faded, shriveled copy. Harry Lorayne is a stage performer who performs feats of memory--for example, a standard trick is to introduce himself to every member of an audience before a show and then be able to call each of them by name. Lorayne's book promises to vastly expand your ability to memorize names, dates, numbers, etc. This is one case where the extravagant claims are made good on. I have used these methods for decades--routinely now when I need to memorize a phone number or a shopping list (although, to be honest, I'm still a little weak on learning people's names).

The caveat is that you need to do some groundwork and practice, practice, practice, although you will see improvements from the very beginning. Here I want to show you just enough to whet your appetite. If you want to learn it for real, you should get the book and read it for yourself (although this particular book is out of print, Lorayne and Lucas's The Memory Book is still available).

In this post I will introduce the method of mental linking. This method will help you remember a list of items in forward or reverse order. It is easy to learn, and is also the foundation for some more sophisticated methods.

The method of mental linking is quite simple, but sometimes mildly undignified in practice. Fortunately the loss of dignity is all internal to your own mind. Get over it.

For demonstration purposes, we will memorize the following list of items:

paper, pencil, helicopter, shaving cream, screwdriver

The first two items on the list are "paper" and "pencil". We want to link these mentally by visualizing an illogical, absurd image combining both elements. You must resist the tendency to look for logical connection--it won't work for this purpose. For example, you could imagine yourself writing on paper with a pencil--this is far too prosaic to be useful.

Instead, visualize yourself trying to write with an oversized pencil that is made of cut and pasted paper. Perhaps it crumples in your hand as you try to write.

Visualize it. See it. The more vivid the image, the better. You have just linked "paper" and "pencil" together.

Next is "helicopter." Visualize an enormous pencil hovering overhead with rotors like a helicopter. See it vividly. Hear the sound effect: thwopthwopthwopthwop.... This links together "pencil" and "helicopter."

Next is "shaving cream." Visualize a helicopter with shaving cream spread over it as if it is prepared to be shaved. A giant razor approaches.... You may hesitate to imagine anything quite so ridiculous. This is where willingness to sacrifice your dignity is key.

This links together "helicopter" and "shaving cream."

Finally is "screwdriver." Imagine yourself attempting to drive a large screw, but using a can of shaving cream instead of a screwdriver. It is not going well--shaving cream keeps squirting out over your hands.

And there we have it. You have created a mental chain of links from each item on the list. Can you recall the list? Try it, starting with "paper."

Try it backwards, starting with "screwdriver."

To keep this post short, I limited the list to five items, but I hope you are convinced that you can now remember ten or fifty items in sequence if you want to. With practice, you can compose a suitable ridiculous mental image in less than a second. It helps that you don't need a logical connection.

To further impress yourself, try recalling the list again an hour from now, and then again tomorrow.

I use this method, for example, to memorize shopping lists. I remember the first item on the list by linking it to the front door of the supermarket.

Drawback to the mental linking method: it only works with things you can visualize concretely. In a future post, I will describe how to handle abstract objects--in particular, numbers and numerical sequences.

(N.B. While I learned this and other techniques from Lorayne's book, he did not invent all of them. See, for example, Wikipedia on the Method of loci.)

Stacy and Clinton versus Descartes

Used to be, one of my guilty pleasures was the TV show
What Not to Wear. In case you haven't seen the show, it features "fashion consultants" Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. They ambush some unsuspecting sloppy-dressing person (almost always female), who has been nominated by her so-called friends, who love her but just can't bear to look at her shabby clothes any more. After persuading the victim/guest of honor to sign on to the What Not to Wear program, they then go through her wardrobe item-by-item and throw everything into the trash. They crush her self-esteem (or at least her pride in her wardrobe), and then pay for an all-new wardrobe, which the victim buys in accordance with principles learned from Stacy and Clinton. Further, the guest gets a new hairdo from stylist Nick Arroyo, and make-up lessons from make-up artist Carmindy. (Fortunately, the make-over always requires shorter hair, not longer.) At the end of the show, the victim returns in triumph to her friends and family to reveal her new, stylish figure.

I say this "used to be" a guilty pleasure, not because I no longer take pleasure in it, but because I quit feeling guilty about it. I've decided Stacy and Clinton, while their fashion recommendations are a little too "safe" for my taste, are waging a battle over a deep philosophical principle (and, better yet, on the side of goodness and light, which is to say the same side as me). What is striking about What Not to Wear is how many of the guests, having undergone the process, say not, "Hey, look--I got some neat clothes," but rather, "I feel like a totally different person." This raises the question: what connection is there between the clothes a person wears and the state of his or her soul?

The philosophical position of mind-body dualism asserts that the mind and body are two distinct and separable entities. If you've ever seen a cartoon in which the mad scientists causes a cat and a mouse to switch personalities, an assumption underlying the story is that the personality can be separated from the body. It also is an important factor in theories of reincarnation and resurrection (although not necessarily--some who believe in resurrection insist that the body is resurrected along with the soul). One of the foremost proponents of mind-body dualism was Descartes.

There is some reason to think that mind-body dualism is an inborn belief. Think of the forementioned cartoon--very young children watch such stories and have no difficulty understanding what's going on. Moreover, if one thinks of the brain as a computer, then the personality would be like software, which can easily be transferred from one computer to another. But inborn beliefs often turn out to be false--consider how nonintuitive are the concepts of curved space-time, Schrodinger's cat, or even the motion of the Earth.

I personally don't hold with dualism; I believe the person is an integrated whole, and that one cannot make one part of the person stronger by making another part weaker. If you want the best for yourself, then demand the best of yourself in all aspects: mental, physical, moral--and yes, your clothes as well. Dressing well does not necessarily mean dressing formally; a T-shirt and jeans, depending on various subtle details, can either make you a slob, or project elegant, timeless simplicity.

Occasionally Stacy and Clinton get a guest who resists on the basis that clothes are merely superficiality, and people should be focusing on their inner beauty instead. I hope one day to hear them retort: "So you claim to be a philosophical dualist, do you?"

Practical Joke #2

Photo by elasticcamel
Step 1: Go into the woods and shoot a moose. Step 2: Take the carcass to a taxidermist and hire him or her to mount the head for wall display. Step 3: Pay the taxidermist an extra $20 to rig the eyes so that they blink once every five minutes. Step 4; Mount the head on the wall above your dining table. Step 5: Host an elegant dinner party and watch to see which guest will first notice the blinking.