What were the names of your home country’s last ten presidents or prime ministers? What’s the capital of Zambia? What is your best friend’s mobile phone number? Of course, you can look it all up. But don’t you sometimes wish you memory was better? A bit like a memorising contest champion’s memory? But then you banish the thought because you could never even get close to such an incredible memory. That’s all innate. Right?
In his TED Talk, Joshua Foer argues that that’s not true. He explains that most people performing extraordinarily in memorising contests have average memories. He says they have trained their memories using ancient techniques. He explains how and why these techniques work.
The comparison of memory champions and normal people revealed that memory champions are not more intelligent than normal people, but brain scans showed that during memorising, memory champions activate other brain regions than normal people: parts of the brain that are involved in spatial memory and navigation.
A technique that makes use of this finding is the memory palace: create an imagined edifice and populate it with images of the things you want to remember. The more unusual the image, the better it works. With this technique, you memorise a speech topic by topic, not word by word. As you train your memory, you get better at creating these images. Just make sure you don’t get distracted.
Mr. Foer’s conclusion is that great memories are not an innate gift, they are learned. At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention, when we are deeply engaged, and when we can assign meaning to it. There are incredible memory capacities in all of us, all of us can become memorising contest champions just as Mr. Foer did. We just need to put some effort into training our memories!