Joshua Foer: Total Recall

Author Joshua Foer shares a few tricks he learned while training to become the 2006 U.S. Memory Champion.

January 1, 2012

According to your book’s title, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin, 2011), memory is both an art and a science. What was the most memorable thing you discovered about our capacity to improve our memory?

I was most surprised to learn while training for the memory championships that it’s more about creativity than memory. It’s the art of making things memorable: how to transform the forgettable into information that your mind is unable to forget. Make [new data] funny, strange, bizarre, ugly, weird—whatever will appeal to your imagination.

Mnemonics (a learning tool that triggers memory, such as poems, rhymes, or images) aren’t just useful for winning memory championships. How can people use them in everyday life?

Mnemonics are enormously useful when giving speeches. These memory techniques were invented for orators 2,000 years ago. I create an image for each of the topics, one for each of the paragraphs. Then I make those images as bizarre and memorable as possible and put them into a “memory palace.” Then I walk through the palace rooms in my mind’s eye and see [the images] in order. This is very useful when giving a talk without notes.

Say you’re in real estate, and you want to use these techniques to remember details about property listings or transactions. Where do you start?

Create an association so that you can see in your mind’s eye what it is you’re trying to remember. Try to remember numbers by turning those numbers into words. That doesn’t take a lot of work to learn, and that’s really handy. I use that trick to remember bank account numbers and credit card numbers. It would be great for remembering asking prices and other numerical things related to real estate.

Here’s another real estate challenge: keeping track of the names of a client’s family members.

Say you’re trying to remember that my name is Joshua Foer. When you meet me on the street, think of someone etching with a knife a “4” on my forehead. That is so gory that the image will remind you of my name. Try to also see Albert Einstein moonwalking behind me. If you’re trying to remember that I’m interested in a studio apartment, maybe you would see me painting in an art studio with an easel.

You say attention is a prerequisite to remembering. How can we become better at paying attention?

 I think multitasking is a recipe for being forgetful. If you’re not focusing, you’re going to forget. The ability to concentrate has deteriorated in our society. The feat of concentration, the idea of remembering a lot of information, now seems exemplary. In the past, it didn’t seem so unusual.

In an age when you can access so much information on a smartphone, why is having a good memory still important?

 It’s true—we’re better off having phone numbers in BlackBerrys than in our memories. But some will argue, “Well, I don’t need to know anything because I can look it up on Google.” I think that’s a dangerous sensibility. The Internet never had a new idea, it never created anything, and it never figured out a link between two ideas. The human mind needs raw material. To the extent that we impoverish our minds, that has hidden costs.

What is the “OK plateau” and how can one apply it to working in real estate?

The OK plateau is the point we all reach where we say, “I’m OK with what I’m doing” and turn on our autopilot. The thing that separates top achievers [from others] is they stay out of autopilot. So, force yourself out of your comfort zone; watch yourself fail and learn from that. What makes a good real estate agent? Part of what is required is having this depth of memory knowing what’s on the market, what you can show, and what your client’s needs are. I would argue that you can get better at remembering all that information and matching that information to the client by really pushing yourself in a disciplined way. Push yourself to try to remember more than you are comfortable with, and over time you will get better.

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Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.