Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How to train your mind to remember anything

By Joshua Foer, Special to CNN
updated 6:03 AM EDT, Mon June 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Josha Foer observed the 2005 USA Memory Championship and won it in 2006
  • He says you can teach yourself to remember a lot of information effectively
  • One of the keys is to associate a word or a fact with other things you remember, Foer says
  • Foer: "If you want to make something memorable, you first have to make it meaningful"

Editor's note: Joshua Foer is a writer and the author of "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." In 2005, he attended the USA Memory Championship as an observer. After learning to train his memory using ancient techniques, he came back to the same contest a year later and won it. Foer spoke at the TED2012 conference in March. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Once upon a time, the idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so strange a notion as it might seem to be today. People invested in their memories, in laboriously furnishing their minds.

Over the last few millennia, we've invented a series of technologies -- from the alphabet to the printed book to the photograph to the iPhone -- that have made it easier and easier for us to externalize our memories and essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity.

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 as if we've forgotten how.

One of the last places where you still find people passionate about the idea of a disciplined, cultivated memory is a strange contest held each spring in New York called the USA Memory Championship. Contestants compete to see who can memorize the most lines of poetry, the most names of strangers, even the most random digits in five minutes.

Watch Joshua Foer's TED Talk

Feats of memory anyone can do

The sport of competitive memorizing is driven by a kind of arms race. Each year someone comes up with a new technique to remember more stuff more quickly, forcing the rest of the field to play catch up.

Three-time World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore invented a memory system, which he alone has mastered, that allowed him to memorize the precise order of 28 shuffled packs of playing cards in one hour. He used a similar trick to memorize the precise order of 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour. Even more incredible than the mere fact of this feat is that this is not an innate talent, but rather a skill he taught himself.

TED.com: How your brain tells you where you are

While there are lots of different tricks for remembering better, all of the techniques used in these memory contests ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer to as elaborative encoding. And it's well illustrated by a strange kind of forgetfulness that psychologists have dubbed the "Baker/baker paradox."

The paradox goes like this:

A researcher shows two people the same photograph of a face and tells one of them that the guy is a baker and the other that his last name is Baker. A couple of days later, the researcher shows the same two subjects the same photograph and asks for the accompanying word.

The person who was told the man's profession is much more likely to remember it than the person who was given his surname. Why should that be? Same photograph. Same word. Different amount of remembering.

TED.com: The real reason for brains

When you hear that the man in the photo is a baker, that fact gets embedded in a whole network of ideas about what it means to be a baker: He cooks bread, he wears a big white hat, he smells good when he comes home from work.

The name Baker, on the other hand, is tethered only to a memory of the person's face. That link is tenuous, and should it dissolve, the name will float off irretrievably into the netherworld of lost memories. (When a word feels like it's stuck on the tip of the tongue, it's likely because we're accessing only part of the neural network that "contains" the idea, but not all of it.) But when it comes to the man's profession, there are multiple strings to reel the memory back in.

Even if you don't at first remember that the man is a baker, perhaps you get some vague sense of breadiness about him, or see some association between his face and a big white hat, or maybe you conjure up a memory of your own neighborhood bakery. There are any number of knots in that tangle of associations that can be traced back to his profession.

TED.com: A computer that works like the brain

As I describe in my book "Moonwalking With Einstein", the art of remembering better in memory competition -- and to remembering better in everyday life -- is about figuring out how to turn capital "B" Bakers into lowercase "b" bakers.

It's about taking information that is lacking in context, lacking in meaning and figuring out a way to transform it so that it makes sense in the light of all the other things that you have floating around in your mind. Pridmore uses a complicated technique to memorize decks of playing cards and strings of binary digits, but we can all take advantage of the Baker/baker paradox.

If you want to make something memorable, you first have to make it meaningful.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joshua Foer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT