Monday, May 30, 2011

Palaces of memory

Remembering is a creative process. We tend to think rote memorisation as a dull boring task. However instead we should think of it as "Moonwalking with Einstein". A big challenge to think of the oddest 'most memorable' images you can associate with what you are trying to remember.

The book 'Moonwalking with Einstein' deals with one journalists travels around the world of memory competitions. These competitions have all sorts of weird and wonderful rounds. Remembering binary number, packs of cards, poetry, random word list, matching faces to names and historic dates. It is a very entertaining book, dealing with the history of knowledge, savants, the weird world of self help marketing and the importance of living adventurously.

Many of these competition events seem pretty abstract. Some memory based skill that had some sort of humane self improvement aspect and maybe even some vague practical use would be good to learn though. But if there was one of these skills that would be cool to have I would like to practice the methods described in the book. I read a book, Inside the black room by Jack Allen Vernon, about sensory deprivation experiments in a Californian university. The author describes an Arab immigrant who unusually asked to be put back into sensory deprivation room as he wanted to train himself incase he was ever forced into a similar situation as torture.

Brian Keenan's 'an evil cradling' has vivid, gripping and terrifying descriptions of the madness that stalked him as he was held hostage in isolation in the Lebanon. For example he writes "that the human mind can travel into those dark regions and return exhausted but intact is more a miracle than that word can ever convey". One of the boys own adventure stories I read as a child had the description of an RAF POWs time in the cooler and the physical and mental regime he went through to ease the hardship. One of the parts I remember was that he remembered all the poetry he had learned at school. These tales of how to deal with sensory deprivation have really stayed with me. Maybe if the memory skills in this book could help in such a situation that would seem useful.

One of the expert mnemonists in the book Ed suggests memorising poetry and prose is useful for such a situation of sensory deprivation. "My philosophy of life is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed' he said 'an hour of memorization yields ten solid minutes of spoken poetry, and those ten minutes have enough content to keep you busy for a full day.'

I will give myself a challenge to get good at poetry memorisation in a month. The competition seems to be to '15 minute memorization time, 20 minute written recall' for poetry. I will try memorise a poem tomorrow. And again in a month and see if memory training improves poetry memorisation.

As an aside the author mentions the interesting possibility of using "neutropic 'cognitive steroids,'" but never goes into details about how these might aid a memory sports competitor. This is slightly odd given he wrote an article in 2005 (viewable here) about his experience taking one of these drugs. He said 'gym rats have steroids, and overachievers have Adderall. ' it would have been interesting to hear what effect these drugs had on his memory abilities but this book never brooches the subject in a personal way.

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