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Remembering with Joshua Foer at the Ottawa Writer’s Fest

By Alessandro Marcon on May 2, 2012

We all have memories we’d like to banish from the kingdom of our minds. If you can’t think of a special one right now, don’t worry, soon a certain scent will waft through the air, a genteel fingertip will brush by an earlobe or someone will snarl behind the bulge of a maple-cream donut and one of those memories will storm out unapologetically and obtrusively. Then you might think about how nice it would be to erase this memory from your mind forever, to eradicate it, to eternal-sunshine it. But, alas, we know we can’t. As soon as something fails to be remembered, it fails to exist and some memories, some lives are quite simply immortal.

But for the memories we wish to keep, or the tidbits of information we hope to hold for eternity (or at least till a due date) we can reflect on the existence of generic phrases such as “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” “I’m drawing a blank,” “It rings a bell,” to remind us of the moments of teeth-clenching, finger-snapping angst when we wish to retrieve that off-leash puppy that vehemently won’t come. It could be during an exam, an interview or small-talk in the pub over a couple of wobby-pops. Ireneo Funes, never had this problem, ever, but this didn’t mean he didn’t have others. So, what can we do about it? Is there anything to be done? Why should we even care about remembering anything? That’s what Google is for, isn’t it?

Joshua Foer, speaking at the Ottawa Writer’s Fest on Sunday, had more than a few ideas after extensively researching the topic, winning the U.S. National memory contest, and then writing a book titled Moonwalking with Einstien: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Here are 5 tantalizing sparks from the talk. If anything here remotely piques your interest, consider snagging his book, (paying for it of course.)

1. Our spatial memory is one of, if not our strongest. Knowing this, we can create mental buildings and store a bunch of information in them. We can then walk our minds through the building and retrieve the information we’ve stored. Sounds ridiculous? It’s not. This is the basis of how a person was able to remember the order of 27 shuffled deck of cards. (Not Foer) This and the idea of association.

2. We remember things more easily when we can attach the information to other associations that we have in our minds. For example, images, sounds, or other things we know or have experienced. Want to remember a word like “toothbrush” in a foreign language? Grab a toothbrush, repeat the word and imaging stabbing someone with it à la Joe Pesci in Casino. The word will stick in memory with much greater efficiency than repeating it four times off of a piece of paper.

3. We have an unlimited capacity to remember things. As Foer stated, you can think of your memory like a big spider web. The bigger it is, the more it catches. The more it catches the bigger it grows.

4. Nobody has a significantly better memory than anyone else. Anyone can train themselves to remember more efficiently. It just requires (big surprise) some effort, discipline and practice. Bill Clinton had a phenomenal ability to remember people’s names and faces. How handy could that be for a young, alacritous politician eager to climb the ranks in a government city? Or how about for an upstart entrepreneur looking to network? But it’s something you have to work on, something that needs a system.

5. According to Foer, people should care about remembering information. Remembering is more than just information retrieval. It is a lens to look at the world. Anyone can train themselves to have a better memory, but it takes a conscious effort to be focused and attentive, to hold attention when you want to tune out; essentially, it’s about participating, being active in what is going on around you. It’s that trusty old factor of will. The will to be present, to engage.