Could it really be said that my working memory was twice as good as it had been when I started my training? I wish I could say it was. But the truth is, it wasn’t. When asked to recall the order of, say, a series of random inkblots or color swatches, or the clearance to the doorway to my parent’s cellar, I was no better than average. Any kind of information that couldn’t be neatly converted into an image and dropped into a memory palace was just as hard for me to retain as it had always been. I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed to have remained fundamentally unchanged.
And yet, clearly I had changed. Or at least how I thought about myself had changed. The most important lesson I took away from my year on the competitive memory circuit was not the secret to learning poetry by heart, but rather something far more global and, in a way, far more likely to be of service in my life. My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.
When I started on this journey, I didn’t know where it would lead, or how thoroughly
it would take over my life, or how it would eventually alter me. But after learning how to memorize poetry and numbers, cards and biographies, I’m convinced that remembering more is only one of the benefits of the many months I spent training my memory. What I really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can happen only if you decide to take notice.
I confess that I never got good enough at filling memory palaces on the fly to feel comfortable throwing out my Dictaphone and notebook. And as someone whose job requires knowing a little bit about a lot, my reading habits are necessarily too extensive to be able to practice more than the occasional intensive reading and memorizing. Though I committed quite a few poems to heart using memory techniques, I still haven’t tackled a work of literature longer than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Once I’d reached the point where I could squirrel away more than 30 digits a minute in memory palaces, I still only sporadically used the techniques to memorize the phone numbers of people I actually wanted to call. I found it was just too simple to punch them into my cell phone. Occasionally I’d memorize shopping lists, or directions, or to-do lists, but only in the rare circumstances when there wasn’t a pen available to jot them down. It’s not that the techniques don’t work. I am walking proof that they do. It’s that it is so hard to find occasion to use them in the real world in which paper, computers, cell phones, and Post-its can handle the task of remembering for me.
So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from a man whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, or invention, or insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Someday in the distant cyborg future, when our internal and external memories fully merge, we may come to possess infinite knowledge. But that’s not the same thing as wisdom. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate the memories in our brains, the ones that make us who we are, that are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of second-rate poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s actually exactly the point. Memory training is not just for the sake of performing a geeky party trick; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.