At the risk of making myself out to be a Luddite (and before you accuse me of being one), I have to say that I’m a trivia buff who is nostalgic for the days before Google omnipresence. Trivia night at the at the bar is ruined on a regular basis by smartasses that look up answers on smartphones, and I’m getting tired of getting kicked out of bars for engaging these douchebags in surprise games of “I poured a beer-y on your Siri”. All that comes out of that is anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to aggressive chain smoking and blacking out on Old Granddad on Tuesday nights.
People just don’t need to remember stuff anymore, so like any good First World citizen, we outsource such inconveniences. As such, we’re getting worse at remembering things.
Journalist Joshua Foer wrote a book a few years ago called Moonwalking with Einstein, which describes his experiences at the U.S. Memory Championship, a tournament that challenges what would, at first glance, appear to be a room full of savants to incredible feats of memorization. Here’s the catch: all of these memory wizards are pretty average Joes and Janes, who just happened to take up memorizing random numbers from the yellow pages as a hobby (my hobby is looking at pictures of pugs in funny costumes but whatever).
These individuals have all trained their brains to be able to sort and categorize random information into meaningful memories that are easy to recall. This is generally accomplished by associating the information with vivid images that are then situated in a location that the memorizer knows well, such as a childhood home or current residence. This process is commonly known as the method of loci or the memory palace.
The human brain has evolved to be able to remember sensations and locations, not raw data. Cro Magnon man didn’t have a great deal of use for remembering phone numbers or WiFi passwords (and I’ll be damned if he would’ve been taking Instagrams of his abs).
How long do you think it would take you to memorize the first five phone numbers in your contacts list? What about the U.S. Presidents?
After succeeding, how long after do you think you’d be able to hang on to that information? Your brain isn’t built to care about Millard Fillmore. It’s built to know where you can find shelter, food, and water.
Let’s say you’re trying to remember the number 413 (obviously you probably wouldn’t need to use this for a three-digit number but I don’t feel like making up a longer example). Imagine the following events, in your own room, as you go through your morning routine.
- Picture yourself lying in bed when you’re awoken by simultaneously by someone yelling “FORE!” and a golfball to the cranium. (4)
- You get up, go to the bathroom and you see Mike Wasowski, the one-eyed monster from Monsters Inc. taking a huge crap in your shower. (1)
- You open your cabinet to throw him a roll of toilet paper to clean up, but your cabinet is occupied by the Three Blind Mice smoking a huge blunt. (3)
And so on and so forth. This is a tedious example for a ten digit number (i.e. you can easily condense the images into smaller pieces), but the key is to associate vivid images with what you’re trying to memorize. The purpose of placing them around your house or apartment is you have more internalized subject matter (like the pictures hanging on your wall or stuff in your refrigerator) to associate with what you’re trying to memorize. These can obviously get very elaborate and don’t necessarily need to apply to just numbers; perhaps you’re trying to remember the countries of South America and you imagine a swarm of bees attacking life-size Barbie dolls (Belize and Barbados) in your kitchen. Remember: the more creative and outrageous the image, the more likely you are to remember it (which explains why the preceding mice had to be not only blind but baked).
But here’s the kicker: What’s the point?
Why waste your time practicing these skills (as you must) or internalizing lists of information that can easily be summoned by Siri or Google? How is this beneficial outside of trivia night where you get hammered and try to recall information, once learned, but long lost to recreational drugs and alcohol abuse?
Imagine you’re reading a book and come across a word you don’t know and can’t figure out contextually.
Without the knowledge of that word, the sentence lacks context and meaning. Knowledge subject matter; the raw “stuff” that humans have aggregated to describe, define and categorize their world, can create context and add texture to your everyday sensory perceptions. While there is something to be said for the blissful wonder and mystery that ignorance provides on some occasions (think of how magical everyday phenomena are when you’re a child), I would argue that knowledge serves to enrich our perception of reality and enhances how we relate to it.
Memorizing world countries and their capitals gives context to what is otherwise a boring news article about a totally foreign place. Knowing the U.S. Presidents or English monarchs and the years they were active adds color to a movie or book set in history. Being able to recall every World Series winner since 1903 can deepen your appreciation for how pathetic it is that the Cubs haven’t won since 1908. But you don’t need to set your sights on mere lists of facts; this method can be applied to learn foreign languages or memorize speeches.
Dates, presidents, insect orders, whatever. If nothing else, it will train your brain to codify information more efficiently so that the next time you need to remember a phone number or a WiFi password you’ll be able to do it more quickly than tapping it into your iPhone.
Hell, if nothing else, you’ll be a god at trivia night.