Interview: Joshua Foer, memory mapping champ

JOSHUA Foer, like most of us, doesn't have a particularly good memory. Why would he? He has a mobile to remember phone numbers, a camera to remember faces and places, a computer to remember pretty much anything. More and more of our memories are, as he puts it, becoming externalised.

Amongst the things he regularly forgets are "where I put my car keys" and "why I just opened the fridge". So how is it that the 28-year-old science journalist, Yale graduate, and brother of American writer Jonathan Safran Foer managed to win the title of US Memory Champion? How did he go from forgetting phone numbers to memorising the order of a shuffled pack of cards in less than two minutes? And how did he do it after just one year in training?

"I didn't think much about my memory before all this," he tells me. "I like to know how stuff works and yet I had never stopped to consider my own memory. It is so much the essence of who we are and it behaves so strangely, but I had no clue about it. And I was intrigued by the idea that once upon a time the notion of having a cultivated memory wasn't alien, like it is today. People used to think you should invest in your memory. I wanted to know more."

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Researching a magazine piece on the sport of mental athletes, as this eccentric bunch of international Grand Masters are known, Foer became so intrigued that he ended up not just entering the US Memory Championships but writing a book about it. The result, called Moonwalking With Einstein, is a fascinating trawl through the contents not just of Foer and his competitors' minds, but of ours.

Foer meets scientists and savants, including Kim "Rain Man" Peek who has since died, and like any good immersion journalist he gets uncomfortably close to his subjects, cheerfully telling me that, yes, he became "one of them". This is especially the case with his personal memory trainer Ed Cooke, a marginally sex-obsessed aesthete and former memory champion who forces everyone who attends his 25th birthday to crawl through a network of tunnels so they have a more "memorable" time.

What piqued Foer's interest was a simple and mind-boggling fact. When Ben Pridmore, a three times world memory champion who can memorise 1,528 random digits in an hour and the order of a pack of cards in 32 seconds, was asked how he performed these astonishing mnemonic feats, he replied: "Anyone can do it, really".

"I assumed these people were freaks of nature," says Foer. "But they weren't. The method they use is 2,500 years old. I just couldn't believe nobody had ever mentioned to me that once upon a time people used to know how we remembered."

The concept, traced back to the Greek poet Simonides and still used by memory champions today, is known as the memory palace. We tend to remember in spatial terms, which is why we can recall in great detail the first house we grew up in, but not, I suspect, the first sentence of this feature. Cooke, who has used countless memory palaces all over London to store the complete works of Shakespeare, first asks Foer to remember a shopping list by placing items throughout his first home. Each image, he instructs, should be visually strong (and ideally sex-related) to make it "stick". It's a remarkable exercise that is now stored in my own memory palace, created during reading the book.

"The basic idea behind the sport of competitive memorising is transforming information that you otherwise forget because it's not meaningful to you into imagery in your mind's eye that is so weird, so beautiful, so gory, so raunchy, so stinky, and so emotionally resonant that you can't shake it," says Foer. "The rest is about doing it efficiently and well."

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Eventually he could do both. Foer trained for just half an hour every day, mostly in his parents' basement wearing blacked out safety goggles and ear muffs (extreme concentration is memory's best friend) and memorising dog-eared yearbooks. "I assumed it would be incredibly boring," he admits. "But it was actually fun. Mind you, don't go for yearbooks from the 1950s. Everyone looked exactly the same."

Grand masters can have hundreds of memory palaces in existence at any one time. Prior to a contest, each palace has to be "cleaned out" of memories so they can be refilled with numbers, cards, poems, strangers' names and faces. The title of the book, which I kept forgetting until it was explained and became meaningful to me, is a mnemonic that describes, in Foer's mind's eye, the four of spades (himself), king of hearts (moonwalking) and three of diamonds (Einstein). How many memory palaces does he have? "Dozens when I was competing," says Foer. "But now I just have a couple that I reuse."

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Foer only revisits these techniques now when he's going shopping and needs to make a list. "Mostly to keep in shape," he says. "But it's a bit like having a Lamborghini in the garage. There aren't that many opportunities to take it out and put the pedal to the metal."

In any case, it's not the techniques he cherishes most but the importance of remembering to remember. "If you're going to go through the world appreciating life you need to have stuff knocking around your skull," says Foer, who still regularly forgets why he's opened the fridge. "The true principle is to take notice. Samuel Johnson said the art of memory is the art of paying attention. And I want to be the kind of person who is mindful and present. I want to have a life that is memorable." v

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art And Science Of Remembering Everything, Allen Lane, 14.99

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 April 2011

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