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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

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The blockbuster phenomenon that charts an amazing journey of the mind while revolutionizing our concept of memory

An instant bestseller that is poised to become a classic, Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer's yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top "mental athletes." He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author's own mind, this is an electrifying work of journalism that reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.
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01 February 2020 (02:29) 
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"Moonwalking with Einstein" explains with intriguing examples how memory can be improved through various methods and the challenges and limitations that appear when doing so. Foer expertly explores the history of memorization techniques and concludes the book with a thrilling ending. Fascinating book, immensely recommended.
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page



















Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. ● Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) ● Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England ● Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) ● Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) ● Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India ● Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) ● Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in 2011 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Joshua Foer, 2011

All rights reserved


Foer, Joshua.

Moonwalking with Einstein : the art and science of remembering everything / Joshua Foer. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-47597-3

1. Mnemonics. 2. Memory. I. Title.

BF385.F64 2011

153.1’4—dc22 2010030265

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced i; nto a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

For Dinah: Everything.

There were no other survivors.

Family members arriving at the scene of the fifth-century-B.C. banquet hall catastrophe pawed at the debris for signs of their loved ones—rings, sandals, anything that would allow them to identify their kin for proper burial.

Minutes earlier, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos had stood to deliver an ode in celebration of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman. As Simonides sat down, a messenger tapped him on the shoulder. Two young men on horseback were waiting outside, anxious to tell him something. He stood up again and walked out the door. At the very moment he crossed the threshold, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed in a thundering plume of marble shards and dust.

He stood now before a landscape of rubble and entombed bodies. The air, which had been filled with boisterous laughter moments before, was smoky and silent. Teams of rescuers set to work frantically digging through the collapsed building. The corpses they pulled out of the wreckage were mangled beyond recognition. No one could even say for sure who had been inside. One tragedy compounded another.

Then something remarkable happened that would change forever how people thought about their memories. Simonides sealed his senses to the chaos around him and reversed time in his mind. The piles of marble returned to pillars and the scattered frieze fragments reassembled in the air above. The stoneware scattered in the debris re-formed into bowls. The splinters of wood poking above the ruins once again became a table. Simonides caught a glimpse of each of the banquet guests at his seat, carrying on oblivious to the impending catastrophe. He saw Scopas laughing at the head of the table, a fellow poet sitting across from him sponging up the remnants of his meal with a piece of bread, a nobleman smirking. He turned to the window and saw the messengers approaching, as if with some important news.

Simonides opened his eyes. He took each of the hysterical relatives by the hand and, carefully stepping over the debris, guided them, one by one, to the spots in the rubble where their loved ones had been sitting.

At that moment, according to legend, the art of memory was born.



Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds). Michael Jackson (king of hearts) has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). Rhea Perlman, diminutive Cheers bartendress (and queen of spades), has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol (seven of clubs) in a highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress (three of clubs).

This tawdry tableau, which I’m not proud to commit to the page, goes a long way toward explaining the unlikely spot I find myself in at the moment. Sitting to my left is Ram Kolli, an unshaven twenty-five-year-old business consultant from Richmond, Virginia, who is also the defending United States memory champion. To my right is the muzzle of a television camera from a national cable network. Spread out behind me, where I can’t see them and they can’t disturb me, are about a hundred spectators and a pair of TV commentators offering play-by-play analysis. One is a blow-dried veteran boxing announcer named Kenny Rice, whose gravelly, bedtime voice can’t conceal the fact that he seems bewildered by this jamboree of nerds. The other is the Pelé of U.S. memory sport, a bearded forty-three-year-old chemical engineer and four-time national champion from Fayetteville, North Carolina, named Scott Hagwood. In the corner of the room sits the object of my affection: a kitschy two-tiered trophy consisting of a silver hand with gold nail polish brandishing a royal flush, and, in a patriotic flourish, three bald eagles perched just below. It’s nearly as tall as my two-year-old niece (and lighter than most of her stuffed animals).

The audience has been asked not to take any flash photographs and to maintain total silence. Not that Ram or I could possibly hear them. Both of us are wearing earplugs. I’ve also got on a pair of industrialstrength earmuffs that look like they belong on an aircraft carrier deckhand (because in the heat of a memory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough). My eyes are closed. On a table in front of me, lying facedown between my hands, are two shuffled decks of playing cards. In a moment, the chief arbiter will click a stopwatch and I will have five minutes to memorize the order of both decks.

The unlikely story of how I ended up in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship, stock-still and sweating profusely, begins a year earlier on a snowy highway in central Pennsylvania. I had been driving from my home in Washington, D.C., to the Lehigh Valley to do an interview for Discover magazine with a theoretical physicist at Kutztown University, who had invented a vacuum chamber device that was supposed to pop the world’s largest popcorn. My route took me through York, Pennsylvania, home of the Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum. I thought that sounded like something I didn’t want to die without having seen. And I had an hour to kill.

As it turned out, the Hall of Fame was little more than a sterile collection of old photographs and memorabilia displayed on the ground floor of the corporate offices of the nation’s largest barbell manufacturer. Museologically, it was crap. But it’s where I first saw a black-and-white photo of Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, a hulking five-foot-four Jewish-American strongman who had earned his nickname in the 1920s by performing such inspiring feats as biting quarters in half and lying on a bed of nails while a fourteen-man Dixieland band played on his chest. He once changed all four tires on a car without any tools. A caption next to the photo billed Greenstein as “the strongest man in the world.”

Staring at that photo, I thought it would be pretty interesting if the world’s strongest person ever got to meet the world’s smartest person. The Mighty Atom and Einstein, arms wrapped around each other: an epic juxtaposition of muscle and mind. A neat photo to hang above my desk, at least. I wondered if it had ever been taken. When I got home, I did a little Googling. The world’s strongest person was pretty easy to find: His name was Mariusz Pudzianowski. He lived in Biała Rawska, Poland, and could deadlift 924 pounds (about thirty of my nieces).

The world’s smartest person, on the other hand, was not so easily identified. I typed in “highest IQ,” “intelligence champion,” “smartest in the world.” I learned that there was someone in New York City with an IQ of 228, and a chess player in Hungary who once played fifty-two simultaneous blindfolded games. There was an Indian woman who could calculate the twenty-third root of a two-hundred-digit number in her head in fifty seconds, and someone else who could solve a fourdimensional Rubik’s cube, whatever that is. And of course there were plenty of more obvious Stephen Hawking types of candidates. Brains are notoriously trickier to quantify than brawn.

In the course of my Googling, though, I did discover one intriguing candidate who was, if not the smartest person in the world, at least some kind of freakish genius. His name was Ben Pridmore, and he could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour and—to impress those of us with a more humanist bent—any poem handed to him. He was the reigning world memory champion.

Over the next few days, my brain kept returning to Ben Pridmore’s. My own memory was average at best. Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); the food in the oven; that it’s “its” and not “it’s”; my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day; the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar (ouch); my friends’ phone numbers; why I just opened the fridge; to plug in my cell phone; the name of President Bush’s chief of staff; the order of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops; which year the Redskins last won the Super Bowl; to put the toilet seat down.

Ben Pridmore, on the other hand, could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in thirty-two seconds. In five minutes he could permanently commit to memory what happened on ninety-six different historical dates. The man knew fifty thousand digits of pi. What was not to envy? I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten. Putting aside for a moment the fact that he was temporarily unemployed, how much more productive must Ben Pridmore be?

Every day there seems to be more to remember: more names, more passwords, more appointments. With a memory like Ben Pridmore’s, I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better. Our culture constantly inundates us with new information, and yet our brains capture so little of it. Most just goes in one ear and out the other. If the point of reading were simply to retain knowledge, it would probably be the single least efficient activity I engage in. I can spend a half dozen hours reading a book and then have only a foggy notion of what it was about. All those facts and anecdotes, even the stuff interesting enough to be worth underlining, have a habit of briefly making an impression on me and then disappearing into who knows where. There are books on my shelf that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.

What would it mean to have all that otherwise-lost knowledge at my fingertips? I couldn’t help but think that it would make me more persuasive, more confident, and, in some fundamental sense, smarter. Certainly I’d be a better journalist, friend, and boyfriend. But more than that, I imagined that having a memory like Ben Pridmore’s would make me an altogether more attentive, perhaps even wiser, person. To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. Surely some of the forgetting that seems to plague us is healthy and necessary. If I didn’t forget so many of the dumb things I’ve done, I’d probably be unbearably neurotic. But how many worthwhile ideas have gone unthought and connections unmade because of my memory’s shortcomings?

I kept returning to something Ben Pridmore said in a newspaper interview, which made me ponder just how different his memory and my own might really be. “It’s all about technique and understanding how the memory works,” he told the reporter. “Anyone could do it, really.”

A couple weeks after my trip to the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, I stood in the back of an auditorium on the nineteenth floor of the Con Edison headquarters near Union Square in Manhattan, an observer at the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship. Spurred by my fascination with Ben Pridmore, I was there to write a short piece for Slate magazine about what I imagined would be the Super Bowl of savants.

The scene I stumbled on, however, was something less than a clash of titans: a bunch of guys (and a few ladies), widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep, poring over pages of random numbers and long lists of words. They referred to themselves as “mental athletes,” or just MAs for short.

There were five events. First the contestants had to learn by heart a fifty-line unpublished poem called “The Tapestry of Me.” Then they were provided with ninety-nine photographic head shots accompanied by first and last names and given fifteen minutes to memorize as many of them as possible. Then they had another fifteen minutes to memorize a list of three hundred random words, five minutes to memorize a page of a thousand random digits (twenty-five lines of numbers, forty numbers to a line), and another five minutes to learn the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards. Among the competitors were two of the world’s thirty-six grand masters of memory, a rank attained by memorizing a sequence of a thousand random digits in under an hour, the precise order of ten shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and the order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.

Though on the face of it these feats might seem like little more than geeky party tricks—essentially useless, and perhaps even vaguely pathetic—what I discovered as I talked to the competitors was something far more serious, a story that made me reconsider the limits of my own mind and the very essence of my education.

I asked Ed Cooke, a young grand master from England who had come to the U.S. event as spring training for that summer’s World Championship (since he was a non-American, his scores couldn’t be counted in the U.S. contest), when he first realized he was a savant.

“Oh, I’m not a savant,” he said, chuckling.

“Photographic memory?” I asked.

He chuckled again. “Photographic memory is a detestable myth,” he said. “Doesn’t exist. In fact, my memory is quite average. All of us here have average memories.”

That seemed hard to square with the fact that I’d just watched him recite back 252 random digits as effortlessly as if they’d been his own telephone number.

“What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly,” he said. Ed had a blocky face and a shoulder-length mop of curly brown hair, and could be counted among the competitors who were least concerned with habits of personal grooming. He was wearing a suit with a loosened tie and, incongruously, a pair of flip-flops emblazoned with the Union Jack. He was twenty-four years old but carried his body like someone three times that age. He hobbled about with a cane at his side—“a winning prop,” he called it—which was necessitated by a recent painful relapse of chronic juvenile arthritis. He and all the other mental athletes I met kept insisting, as Ben Pridmore had in his interview, that anyone could do what they do. It was simply a matter of learning to “think in more memorable ways” using the “extraordinarily simple” 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the “memory palace” that Simonides of Ceos had supposedly invented in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse.

The techniques of the memory palace—also known as the journey method or the method of loci, and more broadly as the ars memorativa, or “art of memory”—were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the Middle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Roman senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesman Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.

Ed explained to me that the competitors saw themselves as “participants in an amateur research program” whose aim was to rescue a long-lost tradition of memory training that had disappeared centuries ago. Once upon a time, Ed insisted, remembering was everything. A trained memory was not just a handy tool, but a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. What’s more, memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas truly be incorporated into one’s psyche and their values absorbed. The techniques existed not just to memorize useless information like decks of playing cards, but also to etch into the brain foundational texts and ideas.

But then, in the fifteenth century, Gutenberg came along and turned books into mass-produced commodities, and eventually it was no longer all that important to remember what the printed page could remember for you. Memory techniques that had once been a staple of classical and medieval culture got wrapped up with the occult and esoteric Hermetic traditions of the Renaissance, and by the nineteenth century they had been relegated to carnival sideshows and tacky self-help books—only to be resurrected in the last decades of the twentieth century for this bizarre and singular competition.

The leader of this renaissance in memory training is a slick sixty-seven-year-old British educator and self-styled guru named Tony Buzan, who claims to have the highest “creativity quotient” in the world. When I met him, in the cafeteria of the Con Edison building, he was wearing a navy suit with five enormous gold-rimmed buttons and a collarless shirt, with another large button at his throat that gave him the air of an Eastern priest. A neuron-shaped pin adorned his lapel. His watch face bore a reproduction of Dali’s Persistence of Memory (the one with the dripping watch face). He referred to the competitors as “warriors of the mind.”

Buzan’s grizzled face looked a decade older than his sixty-seven years, but the rest of him was as trim as a thirty-year-old. He rows between six and ten kilometers every morning on the river Thames, he told me, and he makes a point of eating lots of “brain-healthy” vegetables and fish. “Junk food in: junk brain. Healthy food in: healthy brain,” he said.

When he walked, Buzan seemed to glide across the floor like an air hockey puck (the result, he later told me, of forty years’ training in the Alexander Technique). When he spoke, he gesticulated with a polished, staccato precision that could only have been honed in front of a mirror. Often, he punctuated a key point with an explosion of fingers from his closed fist.

Buzan founded the World Memory Championship in 1991 and has since established national championships in more than a dozen countries, from China to South Africa to Mexico. He says he has been working with a missionary’s zeal since the 1970s to get these memory techniques implemented in schools around the world. He calls it a “global education revolution focusing on learning how to learn.” And he’s been minting himself a serious fortune in the process. (According to press reports, Michael Jackson ran up a $343,000 bill for Buzan’s mind-boosting services shortly before his death.)

Buzan believes schools go about teaching all wrong. They pour vast amounts of information into students’ heads, but don’t teach them how to retain it. Memorizing has gotten a bad rap as a mindless way of holding onto facts just long enough to pass the next exam. But it’s not memorization that’s evil, he says; it’s the tradition of boring rote learning that he believes has corrupted Western education. “What we have been doing over the last century is defining memory incorrectly, understanding it incompletely, applying it inappropriately, and condemning it because it doesn’t work and isn’t enjoyable,” Buzan argues. If rote memorization is a way of scratching impressions onto our brains through the brute force of repetition—the old “drill and kill” method—then the art of memory is a more elegant way of remembering through technique. It is faster, less painful, and produces longerlasting memories, Buzan told me.

“The brain is like a muscle,” he said, and memory training is a form of mental workout. Over time, like any form of exercise, it’ll make the brain fitter, quicker, and more nimble. It’s an idea that dates back to the very origins of memory training. Roman orators argued that the art of memory—the proper retention and ordering of knowledge—was a vital instrument for the invention of new ideas. Today, the “mental workout” has gained great currency in the popular imagination. Brain gyms and memory boot camps are a growing fad, and brain training software was a $265 million industry in 2008, no doubt in part because of research that shows that older people who keep their minds active with crossword puzzles and chess can stave off Alzheimer’s and progressive dementia, but mostly because of the Baby Boomer generation’s intense insecurity about losing their marbles. But while there is much solid science to back up the dementia-defying benefits of an active brain, Buzan’s most hyperbolic claims about the collateral effects of “brain exercise” should inspire a measured dose (at least) of skepticism. Nevertheless, it was hard to argue with the results. I’d just watched a forty-seven-year-old competitor recite, in order, a list of a hundred random words he’d learned a few minutes earlier.

Buzan was eager to sell me on the idea that his own memory has been improving year after year, even as he ages. “People assume that memory decline is a function of being human, and therefore natural,” he said. “But that is a logical error, because normal is not necessarily natural. The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training. What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television. And then we wonder why that person doesn’t do well in the Olympics. That’s what we’ve been doing with memory.”

I pestered Buzan about how hard it would be to learn these techniques. How did the competitors train? How quickly did their memories improve? Did they use these techniques in everyday life? If they were really as simple and effective as he was claiming, how come I’d never heard of them before? Why weren’t we all using them?

“You know,” he replied, “instead of asking me all these questions, you should just try it for yourself.”

“What would it take, theoretically, for someone like me to train for the U.S. Memory Championship?” I asked him.

“If you want to make it into the top three of the U.S. championship, it’d be a good idea to spend an hour a day, six days a week. If you spent that much time, you’d do very well. If you wanted to enter the world championship, you’d need to spend three to four hours a day for the final six months leading up to the championship. It gets heavy.”

Later that morning, while the competitors were trying to memorize “The Tapestry of Me,” Buzan took me aside and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Remember our little talk? Think about it. That could be you up there on the stage, the next U.S. memory champion.”

During a break between the poem memorization and the names-and-faces event, I headed for the sidewalk outside the Con Ed building to escape the locker-room humidity. There I ran into the mop-haired, cane-toting English mnemonist Ed Cooke and his lanky sidekick, the Austrian grand master Lukas Amsüss, rolling their own cigarettes.

Ed had graduated from Oxford the previous spring with a firstclass degree in psychology and philosophy and told me that he was simultaneously toying with writing a book titled The Art of Introspection and pursuing his cognitive science PhD at the University of Paris, where he was doing outré research with the aim of “making people feel like their body has shrunk to a tenth of its normal size.” He was also working on inventing a new color—“not just a new color, but a whole new way of seeing color.”

Lukas, a University of Vienna law student who advertised himself as the author of a short pamphlet titled “How to Be Three Times Cleverer Than Your IQ,” was leaning against the building, trying to justify to Ed his miserable showing in the random words event: “I’ve never heard even of these English words ‘yawn,’ ‘ulcer,’ and ‘aisle’ before,” he insisted in a stiff Austrian accent, “How can I be expected to memorize them?”

At the time, Ed and Lukas were respectively the eleventh- and ninth-best memorizers in the world, the only grand masters at the event, and the only competitors who had shown up in suit and tie. They were eager to share with me (or anyone) their plan to cash in on their mnemonic fame by building a “memory gymnasium” called the Oxford Mind Academy. Their idea was that subscribers—mostly business executives, they hoped—would pay to have personal mental workout trainers. Once the world learned the benefits of training one’s memory, they imagined that cash would fall from the sky. “Ultimately,” Ed told me, “we are looking to rehabilitate Western education.”

“Which we consider to be degenerate,” Lukas added.

Ed explained to me that he saw his participation in memory competitions as part of his attempt to unravel the secrets of human memory. “I figure that there are two ways of figuring out how the brain works,” he said. “The first is the way that empirical psychology does it, which is that you look from the outside and take a load of measurements on a load of different people. The other way follows from the logic that a system’s optimal performance can tell you something about its design. Perhaps the best way to understand human memory is to try very hard to optimize it—ideally with a load of bright people in conditions where they get rigorous and objective feedback. That’s what the memory circuit is.”

The contest itself unfolded with all the excitement of, say, the SAT. The contestants sat quietly at tables staring at sheets of paper, then scribbled answers that they handed off to judges. After each event, scores were quickly calculated and displayed on a screen at the front of the room. But much to the dismay of a journalist trying to write about a national memory championship, the “sport” had none of the public agony of a basketball game, or even a spelling bee. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether competitors were deep in thought or sleep. There may have been a lot of dramatic temple massaging and nervous foot tapping and the occasional empty stare of defeat, but mostly the drama was inside the competitors’ heads, inaccessible to spectators.

A troubling thought percolated to the front of my brain as I stood in the back of the Con Edison auditorium watching these supposedly normal human beings perform their almost unfathomable mental acrobatics: I didn’t have a clue how my own memory worked. Was there even such a place as the front of my brain? A slow wave of questions swept over me—things I’d never bothered to wonder about, but which all of a sudden seemed profoundly pressing. What exactly is a memory? How is one created? And how does it get stored? I’d spent the first two and a half decades of my life with a memory that operated so seamlessly that I’d never had cause to stop and inquire about its mechanics. And yet, now that I was stopping to think about it, I realized that it actually didn’t work all that seamlessly. It completely failed in certain areas, and worked far too well in others. And it had so many inexplicable quirks. That very morning my brain had been held hostage by an unbearable Britney Spears song, forcing me to spend the better part of a subway ride humming Hanukkah jingles in an attempt to dislodge it. What was that about? A few days earlier, I had been trying to tell a friend about an author I admired, only to find that I remembered the first letter of his last name, and nothing else. How come that happened? And why didn’t I have a single memory before the age of three? For that matter, why couldn’t I remember what I had for breakfast just the day before, even though I remembered exactly what I was having for breakfast—Corn Pops, coffee, and a banana—four years earlier when I was told that a plane had just crashed into one of the twin towers? And why am I always forgetting why I opened the refrigerator door?

I came away from the U.S. Memory Championship eager to find out how Ed and Lukas did it. Were these just extraordinary individuals, prodigies from the long tail of humanity’s bell curve, or was there something we could all learn from their talents? I was skeptical about them for the same reason I was skeptical about Tony Buzan. Any self-appointed guru who has earned himself a king’s ransom in the modern “self-help” racket is bound to perk up a journalist’s bullshit detector, and Buzan had set off every alarm bell I’ve got. I didn’t yet know enough to know whether he was selling hype or science, but his over-the-top packaging—“a global education revolution”!—certainly smacked of the former.

Was it really true that anyone could learn to quickly memorize huge quantities of information? Anyone? I was willing to believe Buzan when he said there were techniques that one could learn to marginally improve one’s memory around the edges, but I didn’t fully believe him (or Ed) when he said that any schmo off the street could learn to memorize entire decks of playing cards or thousands of binary digits. The alternate explanation just seemed a whole lot more plausible: that Ed and his colleagues had some freakish innate talent that was the mental equivalent of André the Giant’s height or Usain Bolt’s legs.

Indeed, much of what’s been written about memory improvement by self-help gurus is tainted by hucksterism. When I checked out the self-help aisle at my local Barnes Noble, I found stacks of books making fevered claims that they could teach me how to “never forget a telephone number or date” or “develop instant recall.” One book even pronounced that it could show me how to use the “other 90 percent” of my brain, which is one of those pseudoscientific clichés that makes about as much sense as saying I could be taught to use the other 90 percent of my hand.

But memory improvement has also long been investigated by people whose relationships to the subject are less obviously profitable and whose claims are inspected by peer review. Academic psychologists have been interested in expanding our native memory capacities ever since Hermann Ebbinghaus first brought the study of memory into the laboratory in the 1870s.

This book is about the year I spent trying to train my memory, and also trying to understand it—its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential. It’s about how I learned firsthand that our memories are indeed improvable, within limits, and that the skills of Ed and Lukas can indeed be tapped by all of us. It’s also about the scientific study of expertise, and how researchers who study memory champions have discovered general principles of skill acquisition—secrets to improving at just about anything—from how mental athletes train their brains.

Though this is not meant to be a self-help book, I hope you’ll come away with a sense of how one goes about training one’s memory, and how memory techniques can be used in everyday life.

Those techniques have a surprisingly rich and important legacy. The role that they have played in the development of Western culture is one of the great themes in intellectual history whose story is not widely known outside of the rarefied academic corners in which it is studied. Mnemonic systems like Simonides’ memory palace profoundly shaped the way people approached the world from the time of antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And then they all but disappeared.

Physiologically, we are virtually identical to our ancestors who painted images of bison on the walls of the Lascaux cave in France, among the earliest cultural artifacts to have survived to the present day. Our brains are no larger or more sophisticated than theirs. If one of their babies were to be dropped into the arms of an adoptive parent in twenty-first-century New York, the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.

All that differentiates us from them is our memories. Not the memories that reside in our own brains, for the child born today enters the world just as much a blank slate as the child born thirty thousand years ago, but rather the memories that are stored outside ourselves—in books, photographs, museums, and these days in digital media. Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years. Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. When we die, our memories die with us. In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.

The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests held around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?



In May 1928, the young journalist S walked into the office of the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria and politely asked to have his memory tested. He had been sent by his boss, the editor of the newspaper where he worked. Each morning, at the daily editorial meeting, his boss would dole out the day’s assignments to the roomful of reporters in a rapid stream of facts, contacts, and addresses that they would need to file their stories. All the reporters took copious notes, except one. S simply watched and listened.

One morning, fed up at the reporter’s apparent inattentiveness, the editor took S aside to lecture him about the need to take his job seriously. Did he think all that information was being read off each morning just because the editor liked to hear his own voice? Did he think he could report his stories without contacts? That he could simply reach out to people telepathically, without knowing their addresses? If he hoped to have any future in the world of newspaper journalism, he’d have to begin paying attention and jotting notes, the editor told him.

S stared at the editor blankly through his scolding and waited for him to finish. Then he calmly repeated back every detail of the morning meeting, word for word. The editor was floored. He didn’t know what to say. But S would later claim that he, S, felt the bigger shock. Until that moment, he said, he’d always assumed that it was perfectly normal for a person to remember everything.

Upon arriving at Luria’s office, S remained skeptical about his own uniqueness. “He wasn’t aware of any peculiarities in himself and couldn’t conceive of the idea that his memory differed from other people’s,” recalled the psychologist, who gave him a series of tests to evaluate his powers of recall. Luria started by asking S to memorize a list of numbers, and listened in amazement as his shy subject recited back seventy digits, first forward and then backward. “It was of no consequence to him whether the series I gave him contained meaningful words or nonsense syllables, numbers or sounds; whether they were presented orally or in writing,” said Luria. “All he required was that there be a three-to-four-second pause between each element in the series, and he had no difficulty reproducing whatever I gave him.” Luria gave S test after test, and kept getting the same result: The man was unstumpable. “As the experimenter, I soon found myself in a state verging on utter confusion,” Luria recalled. “I simply had to admit that ... I had been unable to perform what one would think was the simplest task a psychologist can do: measure the capacity of an individual’s memory.”

Luria would go on to study S for the next thirty years, and would eventually write a book about him, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, that has become one of the most enduring classics in the literature of abnormal psychology. S could memorize complex mathematical formulas without knowing any math, Italian poetry without speaking Italian, and even phrases of gobbledygook. But even more remarkable than the breadth of material he could commit to memory was the fact that his memories seemed never to degrade.

For normal humans, memories gradually decay with time along what’s known as the “curve of forgetting.” From the moment you grasp a new piece of information, your memory’s hold on it begins to slowly loosen, until finally it lets go altogether. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus set out to quantify this inexorable process of forgetting. In order to understand how our memories fade over time, he spent years memorizing 2,300 three-letter nonsense syllables like GUF, LER, and NOK. At set periods, he would test himself to see how many of the syllables he’d forgotten and how many he’d managed to retain. When he graphed the results, he got a curve that looked like this:

No matter how many times he performed the experiment on himself, the results were always roughly the same: In the first hour after learning a set of nonsense syllables, more than half of them would be forgotten. After the first day, another 10 percent would disappear. After a month, another 14 percent. After that, the memories that were left had more or less stabilized—they had become consolidated in long-term memory—and the pace of forgetting slowed to a gentle creep.

S’s memories seemed not to follow the curve of forgetting. No matter how much he’d been asked to remember, or how long ago it had been—as many as sixteen years in some cases—he was always able to recite back the material with the same exactitude as if he’d just learned it. “He would sit with his eyes closed, pause, then comment: ‘Yes, yes ... this was the series you gave me once when we were in your apartment ... you were sitting at the table ... you were wearing a grey suit ...’ And with that he would reel off the series precisely as I had given it to him at the earlier session,” wrote Luria.

In Luria’s lyrical account, S seems at times like a visitor from another planet, and in the annals of abnormal psychology, his case has often been treated as entirely sui generis. But as I was about to learn, there is another far more exciting interpretation of S’s story: that as rare and singular a case as S might have been, there’s much that the rest of our normal, enfeebled, forgetful brains could learn from his. Indeed, his extraordinary skills may lie dormant in all of us.

After I had wrapped up my reporting on the competition that had brought me to New York, standard journalistic protocol would have been to head back home, write up a short article, and move on to some other story. But that’s not what happened. Instead of boarding a train to Washington, I found myself standing in the back of yet another auditorium—this time, at a public high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Ed Cooke was supposed to be teaching a roomful of sixteen-year-olds how to use memory techniques to ace their exams. I had canceled my plans for the day and tagged along because he’d promised me that if I hung around with him long enough he would explain to me, in detail, how he and Lukas had taught themselves to remember like S. But before delving into any such esoteric secrets, there was some basic groundwork to be laid. Ed wanted to show me and the students that our memories were already extraordinary—at least when it came to learning certain kinds of information. To do that, he had brought along a version of a memory test known as the two-alternative picture recognition exam.

After introducing himself to the students with some self-deprecating humor—“I’m from England, where we prefer to spend our time memorizing, rather than developing full social lives”—he demonstrated his mnemonic bona fides by learning a seventy-digit number in just over a minute (three times faster than it took S to perform the same feat), and then proceeded straight into a test of the students’ memories, and mine.

“I’m going to show you guys a bunch of pictures, and I’m going to show them to you really, really fast,” he announced, trying to lift his voice above the clamoring teenagers. “I want you to try to remember as many of them as you can.” He pressed a button on a remote control, and the overhead lights dimmed. A series of slides began to blink across a projection screen at the front of the room, each lingering for less than half a second. There was a slide of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. Then a slide of barbells. Then Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. Then the cover of Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. And a red rose.

There were thirty such pictures, each appearing and disappearing so quickly that it was hard to imagine we’d ever be able to recall any of them, much less all of them. But I tried my hardest to capture some detail from each, and to make a quick mental note of what I was looking at. After the last slide, a picture of a goat, the wall went blank and the lights came back on.

“Now, do you think you’ll be able to remember all those pictures?” Ed asked us.

A girl sitting just in front of me sarcastically shouted, “Not a chance!” provoking giggles from several of her colleagues.

“That’s the spirit!” Ed yelled back, and then looked down at his watch to note the time. Of course, the point of the exercise—why else would he have given it?—was that we would be able to remember all those pictures. Like the girl in front of me, I found it hard to believe.

After giving us thirty minutes for the curve of forgetting to work its inevitable erasures on the images we’d glanced at so quickly, Ed put up a new set of slides. This time, there were two pictures on the screen. One of them we’d seen before, and one of them we hadn’t: Muhammad Ali on the left and a fizzling Alka-Seltzer tablet on the right.

He asked us all to point to the picture we recognized. Easy enough. We all knew we’d seen Muhammad Ali, but not the Alka-Seltzer tablet. “Isn’t it striking how easily you remember that?” said Ed, before clicking through to another slide: a deer on the left and the Nietzsche book on the right.

We all knew that one, too. In fact, he went through thirty slides, and everyone in the room recognized every single one of the photos we’d seen before. “Now here’s the fascinating thing,” said Ed, pacing professorially at the front of the linoleum-tiled auditorium. “We could have done this with ten thousand slides, and you would have performed almost equally well. Your memory for images is that good.” He was referring to a frequently cited set of experiments carried out in the 1970s using the exact same picture recognition test that we’d just taken, only instead of thirty images, the researchers asked their subjects to remember ten thousand. (It took a full week to perform the test.) That’s a lot of pictures for a mind to keep track of, especially since the subjects were only able to look at each image once. Even so, the scientists found that people were able to remember more than 80 percent of what they’d seen. In a more recent study, the same test was performed with 2,500 images, but instead of asking people to choose between an image of Muhammad Ali and an Alka-Seltzer tablet (an easy choice, no matter how effervescent Cassius Clay might have been), they had to choose between alternative images that were almost identical: a stack of five dollar bills versus a stack of one dollar bills, a green train car versus a red train car, a bell with a narrow handle versus a bell with a wide handle. Even when the images differed only in a tiny detail, people still remembered 90 percent of them correctly.

I found those numbers astonishing, but I realized they were merely quantifying something that I instinctively knew: that our memories do a pretty darn good job. For all of our griping over the everyday failings of our memories—the misplaced keys, the forgotten name, the factoid stuck on the tip of the tongue—their biggest failing may be that we forget how rarely we forget.

“Here’s the most incredible thing about the test I just gave you,” Ed declared. “We could play this game several years from now and ask you which of these photos you’ve seen before, and you’d actually be able to point to the right one more often than not. Somewhere in your mind there’s a trace from everything you’ve ever seen.”

That sounded like a bold and possibly dubious claim, one that I was curious to look into. Exactly how good are our memories? I wondered. Is it possible we have the capacity to remember everything?

This notion that our brains don’t ever really forget is certainly embedded in the way we talk about our memories. The metaphors we most often use to describe memory—the photograph, the tape recorder, the mirror, the computer—all suggest mechanical accuracy, as if the mind were some sort of meticulous transcriber of our experiences. Indeed, I learned that until fairly recently, most psychologists suspected that our brains really do function as perfect recorders—that a lifetime of memories are socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic, and if they can’t be found it isn’t because they’ve vanished, but only because we’ve misplaced them. In an oft-cited paper published in 1980, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus polled her colleagues and found that fully 84 percent of them agreed with this statement: “Everything we learn is permanently stored in the mind, although sometimes particular details are not accessible. With hypnosis, or other special techniques, these inaccessible details could eventually be recovered.”

Loftus goes on to say that this conviction has its modern origins in a set of experiments carried out from 1934 to 1954 by a Canadian neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield. Penfield used electrical probes to stimulate the brains of epileptic patients while they were lying conscious on the operating table with their skulls exposed. He was trying to pinpoint the source of their epilepsy, and hopefully cure it, but he found that when his probe touched certain parts of his patients’ temporal lobes, something very unexpected happened. The patients started describing vivid, long-forgotten memories. When he touched the same spot again, he often elicited the same memory. Based on those experiments, Penfield came to believe that the brain records everything to which it pays any degree of conscious attention, and that this recording is permanent.

The Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar came to believe the same thing. For six years, between 1978 and 1984, he kept a diary of the one or two most notable events that happened to him each day. For each event, he wrote down what occurred, who was involved, where it occurred, and when—each on a separate card. In 1984, he began testing himself to see just how much of those six years he’d be able to recall. He would pull out a random card and see if he had any memories of the events described that day. He found that he could recall almost everything that happened—especially the more recent events—with just a few retrieval clues. But nearly 20 percent of the oldest memories seemed to have totally disappeared. These events, described in his own diary, felt totally foreign, as if they had happened to a stranger.

But were those memories really gone? Wagenaar wasn’t convinced they were. He decided to take another look at ten events that he believed he’d completely forgotten, in which his diary suggested that another person had been present. He went back to those people and asked them for details that might help him recall his lost memories. In every single case, with enough prodding, someone was able to supply a detail that led Wagenaar to retrieve other parts of the memory. Not one of his memories had actually disappeared. He concluded that “in light of this one cannot say that any event was completely forgotten.”

Even so, over the last three decades, most psychologists have grown less optimistic that we in fact possess perfect memories of the past, just waiting to be uncovered. As neuroscientists have begun to unravel some of the mysteries of what exactly a memory is, it’s become clear that the fading, mutating, and eventual disappearance of memories over time is a real physical phenomenon that happens in the brain at the cellular level. And most now agree that Penfield’s experiments elicited hallucinations—something more like déjà vu or a dream than real memories.

Nevertheless, the sudden reappearance of long-lost episodes from one’s past is a familiar enough experience, and the notion that with just the right cue, we might somehow be able to pull out every single bit of information that once went into our brains persists. In fact, probably the single most common misperception about human memory—the one that Ed had so casually laughed off—is that some people have photographic memories. When I followed up with him about that, he confided that he used to wake up in cold sweats worrying that someday someone with a photographic memory would read about the World Memory Championship in the newspaper, show up, and blow him and his colleagues out of the water. He was reassured to learn that most scientists now agree that this is unlikely to happen. Even though many people claim to have a photographic memory, there’s no evidence that anyone can actually store mental snapshots and recall them with perfect fidelity. Indeed, only one case of photographic memory has ever been described in the scientific literature.

In 1970, a Harvard vision scientist named Charles Stromeyer III published a paper in Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific journals, about a young woman named Elizabeth, a Harvard student, who could perform an astonishing feat. Stromeyer showed Elizabeth’s right eye a pattern of ten thousand random dots, and a day later he showed her left eye another dot pattern. Astoundingly, Elizabeth was able to mentally fuse the two images, as if they were one of those “Magic Eye” random dot stereograms that were a fad in the 1990s. When she did, she claimed to see a single, new image where the two dot patterns overlapped. Elizabeth seemed to offer the first conclusive proof that photographic memory is possible. But then, in a soap opera twist, Stromeyer married her, and she was never the subject of further testing.

In 1979, another researcher named John Merritt decided to investigate Stromeyer’s claims. He placed a photographic memory test in magazines and newspapers around the country. It consisted of two random dot drawings. Merritt hoped someone might come forward with abilities similar to Elizabeth’s and prove that her case was not unique. He figures that roughly one million people tried their hand at the test. Of that number, thirty wrote in with the right answer, and fifteen agreed to be studied by Merritt. But with scientists looking over their shoulders, none of them could pull off Elizabeth’s nifty trick.

There are so many unlikely circumstances surrounding the Elizabeth case—the marriage between subject and scientist, the lack of further testing, the inability to find anyone else with her abilities—that some psychologists have concluded that there’s something fishy about Stromeyer’s findings. He denies it. “We don’t have any doubt about our data,” he told me over the phone. Still, his one-woman study, he admits, “is not strong evidence for other people having photographic memory.”

Growing up, I’d been enchanted by stories about ultra-Orthodox Jews who had memorized all 5,422 pages of the Babylonian Talmud so thoroughly that when a pin was stuck through any of the Talmud’s sixty-three tractates, or books, they could tell you which words it passed through on every page. I’d always assumed those stories had to be apocryphal, a bit of Hebrew school lore like the levitating rabbi or the wallet-cum-suitcase made out of foreskins. But as it turns out, the pinprick Talmudists are as legit members of the Jewish pantheon as the Mighty Atom. In 1917, a psychologist named George Stratton wrote up a study in the journal Psychological Review about a group of Polish Talmudic scholars known as the Shass Pollak (literally, the “Talmud Pole”) who lived up to their reputation of pinpoint precision. But as he noted in his commentary, despite the impressive memories of the Shass Pollak, “none of them ever attained any prominence in the scholarly world.” The Shass Pollak didn’t possess photographic memories so much as single-minded perseverance in their studies. If the average person decided he was going to dedicate his entire life to memorizing 5,422 pages of text, he’d also eventually get to be pretty good at it.

So if photographic memory is just a myth, what about the Russian journalist S? If he wasn’t taking snapshots in his mind, what exactly was he doing?

Sʹs exceptional memory wasn’t the only strange feature of his brain. He also suffered from a rare perceptual disorder known as synesthesia, which caused his senses to be bizarrely intertwined. Every sound S heard had its own color, texture, and sometimes even taste, and evoked “a whole complex of feelings.” Some words were “smooth and white,” others “as orange and sharp as arrows.” The voice of Luria’s colleague, the famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky, was “crumbly yellow.” The cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein’s voice resembled a “flame with fibres protruding from it.”

Words set S’s mind ablaze with mental imagery. When you or I hear someone mention the word “elephant” or read the word on this page, we understand immediately that the referent is a large, gray pachyderm with thick legs and an oversize proboscis. But under most circumstances we don’t actually conjure up an image of an elephant in our mind’s eye. We might, if we choose to, but it takes a little extra effort, and in the course of normal conversation or reading, there’s usually no point to it. But that’s exactly what S did, automatically and instantaneously, with every word he heard. He couldn’t help it. “When I hear the word green, a green flowerpot appears; with the word red I see a man in a red shirt coming toward me; as for blue, this means an image of someone waving a small blue flag from a window,” he told Luria. Because every word summoned up an accompanying synesthetic image—sometimes also a taste or smell—S lived in a kind of waking dream, once removed from reality. While one universe unfolded around him, another universe of images blossomed in his mind’s eye.

These images that populated S’s head were so powerful that they felt at times indistinguishable from reality. “Indeed, one would be hard put to say which was more real for him: the world of imagination in which he lived, or the world of reality in which he was but a temporary guest,” Luria wrote. All S had to do was imagine himself running after a train to make his pulse race, or envision sticking his hand in a hot oven to make his temperature rise. He claimed even to be able to abolish pain with his images: “Let’s say I’m going to the dentist ... I sit there and when the pain starts I feel it ... it’s a tiny, orange-red thread. I’m upset because I know that if this keeps up the thread will widen until it turns into a dense mass ... So I cut the thread, make it smaller and smaller, until it’s just a tiny point. And the pain disappears.”

Even numbers had their own personalities for S: “Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person (why, I don’t know); 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a mustache; 8 a very stout woman—a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his mustache.” But while numbers were brought to life by S’s synesthesia, he had trouble understanding abstract concepts and metaphors. “I can only understand what I can visualize,” he explained. Words like “infinity” and “nothing” were beyond his grasp. “Take the word something for example. For me this is a dense cloud of steam that has the color of smoke. When I hear the word nothing, I also see a cloud, but that one is thinner, completely transparent. And when I try to seize a particle of this nothing, I get the most minute particles of nothing.” S was simply unable to think figuratively. An expression like “weigh one’s words” evoked images of scales, not prudence. Poetry was virtually impossible to read, unless it was completely literal. Even simple stories proved difficult to understand because his irrepressible image-making would bog him down as he tried to visualize every word, or else send his brain hurtling off to some other associated image, and some other memory.

All of our memories are, like S’s, bound together in a web of associations. This is not merely a metaphor, but a reflection of the brain’s physical structure. The three-pound mass balanced atop our spines is made up of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of five to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed.

If thinking about the word “coffee” makes you think about the color black and also about breakfast and the taste of bitterness, that’s a function of a cascade of electrical impulses rocketing around a real physical pathway inside your brain, which links a set of neurons that encode the concept of coffee with others containing the concepts of blackness, breakfast, and bitterness. That much scientists know. But how exactly a collection of cells could “contain” a memory remains among the deepest conundrums of neuroscience.

For all the advances that have been made in recent decades, it’s still the case that no one has ever actually seen a memory in the human brain. Though advances in imaging technology have allowed neuroscientists to grasp much of the basic topography of the brain, and studies of neurons have given us a clear picture of what happens inside and between individual brain cells, science is still relatively clueless about what transpires in the circuitry of the cortex, the wrinkled outer layer of the brain that allows us to plan into the future, do long division, and write poetry, and which holds most of our memories. In our knowledge of the brain, we’re like someone looking down on a city from a high-flying airplane. We can tell where the industrial and residential neighborhoods are, where the airport is, the locations of the main traffic arteries, where the suburbs begin. We also know, in great detail, what the individual units of the city (citizens, and in this metaphor, neurons) look like. But, for the most part, we can’t say where people go when they get hungry, how people make a living, or what any given person’s commute looks like. The brain makes sense up close and from far away. It’s the in-between—the stuff of thought and memory, the language of the brain—that remains a profound mystery.

One thing is clear, however: The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception—some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. So when a memory goes missing or a name gets caught on the tip of the tongue, hunting it down can be frustrating and often futile. We have to stumble in the dark with a flashlight for cues that might lead us back to the piece of information we’re looking for—Her name begins with an L ... She’s a painter ... I met her at that party a couple years ago—until one of those other memories calls to mind the one we’re looking for. Ah yes, her name was Lisa! Because our memories don’t follow any kind of linear logic, we can neither sequentially search them nor browse them.

But S could. S’s memories were as regimentally ordered as a card catalog. Each piece of information he memorized was assigned its own address inside his brain.

Let’s say I asked you to memorize the following list of words: “bear,” “truck,” “college,” “shoe,” “drama,” “garbage,” and “watermelon.” You might very well be able to remember all seven of those words, but it’s less likely you’d be able to remember them in order. Not so with S. For S, the first piece of information in a list was always, and without fail, inextricably linked to the second piece of information, which could only be followed by the third. It didn’t matter whether he was memorizing Dante’s Divine Comedy or mathematical equations; his memories were always stored in linear chains. Which is why he could recite poems just as easily backward as forward.

S kept his memories rigidly organized by mapping them onto structures and places he already knew well. “When S read through a long series of words, each word would elicit a graphic image. And since the series was fairly long, he had to find some way of distributing these images of his in a mental row or sequence,” wrote Luria. “Most often ... he would ‘distribute’ them along some roadway or street he visualized in his mind.”

When he wanted to commit something to memory, S would simply take a mental stroll down Gorky Street in Moscow, or his home in Torzhok, or some other place he’d once visited, and install each of his images at a different point along the walk. One image might be placed at the doorway of a house, another near a streetlamp, another on top of a picket fence, another in a garden, another on the ledge of a store window. All this happened in his mind’s eye as effortlessly as if he were placing real objects along a real street. If asked to memorize those same seven words—“bear,” “truck,” “college,” “shoe,” “drama,” “garbage,” and “watermelon”—he would conjure up an image associated with each of them, and scatter them along one of his many mental paths.

When S wanted to recall the information a day, month, year, or decade later, all he would have to do was rewalk the path where that particular set of memories was stored, and he would see each image in the precise spot where he originally left it. When S did, on rare occasions, forget something, “these omissions ... were not defects of memory but were, in fact, defects of perception,” wrote Luria. In one instance, S forgot the word “pencil” amid a long list of words that he was supposed to have memorized. Here’s his own description of how he forgot it: “I put the image of the pencil near a fence ... the one down the street, you know. But what happened was that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked right on past without noticing it.” On another occasion, he forgot the word “egg.” “I had put it up against a white wall and it blended in with the background,” he explained.

S’s memory was a beast that indiscriminately gobbled up everything it was fed, and had trouble disgorging those pieces of information that were too trivial to be worth keeping. The greatest challenge S faced was learning what Luria called “the art of forgetting.” The rich images that every sensation created proved frustratingly indelible. He experimented with different techniques to wipe them from his mind. He tried writing things down, with the hope that he would then no longer feel a need to remember them. When that didn’t work, he tried burning the pieces of paper, but he could still see numbers hovering among the embers. Eventually he had an epiphany. One evening, while feeling particularly pestered by a chart of numbers he had earlier memorized, he figured out the secret of forgetting. All he had to do was convince himself that the information he wanted to forget was meaningless. “If I don’t want the chart to show up it won’t,” he exclaimed. “And all it took was for me to realize this!”

One might assume that S’s vacuum-cleaner memory would have made him a formidable journalist. I imagined if I could only take notes without taking notes and have at my fingertips every fact I’d ever digested, I’d be immensely better at my job. I’d be better at everything.

But professionally S was a failure. His newspaper gig didn’t last long, and he was never able to hold down a steady job. He was, in Luria’s estimation, “a somewhat anchorless person, living with the expectation that at any moment something particularly fine was to come his way.” Ultimately, his condition made him unemployable as anything but a stage performer, a theatrical curio like the mnemonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The man with the best memory in the world simply remembered too much.

In his short story “Funes the Memorious,” Jorge Luis Borges describes a fictional version of S, a man with an infallible memory who is crippled by an inability to forget. He can’t distinguish between the trivial and the important. Borges’s character Funes can’t prioritize, can’t generalize. He is “virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas.” Like S, his memory was too good. Perhaps, as Borges concludes in his story, it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. To make sense of the world, we must filter it. “To think,” Borges writes, “is to forget.”

While S’s capacious memory for facts seems almost unbelievable, he was in fact taking advantage of the well-developed spatial memory we all possess. If you visit London, you’ll occasionally cross paths with young men (and less often women) on motor scooters, blithely darting in and out of traffic while studying maps affixed to their handlebars. These studious cyclists are training to become London cabdrivers. Before they can receive accreditation from London’s Public Carriage Office, cabbies-in-training must spend two to four years memorizing the locations and traffic patterns of all 25,000 streets in the vast and vastly confusing city, as well as the locations of 1,400 landmarks. Their training culminates in an infamously daunting exam called “the Knowledge,” in which they not only have to plot the shortest route between any two points in the metropolitan area, but also name important places of interest along the way. Only about three out of ten people who train for the Knowledge obtain certification.

In 2000, a neuroscientist at University College London named Eleanor Maguire wanted to find out what effect, if any, all that driving around the labyrinthine streets of London might have on the cabbies’ brains. When she brought sixteen taxi drivers into her lab and examined their brains in an MRI scanner, she found one surprising and important difference. The right posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be involved in spatial navigation, was 7 percent larger than normal in the cabbies—a small but very significant difference. Maguire concluded that all of that way-finding around London had physically altered the gross structure of their brains. The more years a cabbie had been on the road, the more pronounced the effect.

The brain is a mutable organ, capable—within limits—of reorganizing itself and readapting to new kinds of sensory input, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. It had long been thought that the adult brain was incapable of spawning new neurons—that while learning caused synapses to rearrange themselves and new links between brain cells to form, the brain’s basic anatomical structure was more or less static. Maguire’s study suggested the old inherited wisdom was simply not true.

After her groundbreaking study of London cabbies, Maguire decided to turn her attention to mental athletes. She teamed up with Elizabeth Valentine and John Wilding, authors of the academic monograph Superior Memory, to study ten individuals who had finished near the top of the World Memory Championship. They wanted to find out if the memorizers’ brains were—like the London cabbies’—structurally different from the rest of ours, or if they were somehow just making better use of memory abilities that we all possess.

The researchers put both the mental athletes and a group of matched control subjects into MRI scanners and asked them to memorize three-digit numbers, black-and-white photographs of people’s faces, and magnified images of snowflakes, while their brains were being scanned. Maguire and her team thought it was possible that they might discover anatomical differences in the brains of the memory champs, evidence that their brains had somehow reorganized themselves in the process of doing all that intensive remembering. But when the researchers reviewed the imaging data, not a single significant structural difference turned up. The brains of the mental athletes appeared to be indistinguishable from those of the control subjects. What’s more, on every single test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range. The memory champs weren’t smarter, and they didn’t have special brains. When Ed and Lukas told me they were average guys with average memories, they weren’t just being modest.

But there was one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and the control subjects: When the researchers looked at which parts of the brain were lighting up when the mental athletes were memorizing, they found that they were activating entirely different circuitry. According to the functional MRIs, regions of the brain that were less active in the control subjects seemed to be working in overdrive for the mental athletes.

Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging several regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation, including the same right posterior hippocampal region that the London cabbies had enlarged with all their daily way-finding. At first glance, this wouldn’t seem to make any sense. Why would mental athletes be conjuring images in their mind’s eye when they were trying to learn three-digit numbers? Why should they be navigating like London cabbies when they’re supposed to be remembering the shapes of snowflakes?

Maguire and her team asked the mental athletes to describe exactly what was going through their minds as they memorized. The mental athletes recounted a strategy that sounded almost exactly like what S claimed had been happening in his brain. Even though they were not innate synesthetes like S, the mental athletes said they were consciously converting the information they were being asked to memorize into images, and distributing those images along familiar spatial journeys. Unlike S, they weren’t doing this automatically, or because it was an inborn talent they’d nurtured since childhood. Rather, the unexpected patterns of neural activity that Maguire’s fMRIs turned up were the result of training and practice. The mental athletes had taught themselves to remember like S.

I found myself fascinated by Ed and his quiet friend Lukas, and this formidable-sounding project of theirs to push their memories as hard and as far as they possibly could. And they likewise seemed fascinated with me, a journalist of roughly the same age, who might share their story in some magazine they’d never heard of, and perhaps jump-start their careers as mnemonic celebrities. After Ed’s lecture at the high school, he invited me to follow him and Lukas to a nearby bar, where we met up with an aspiring filmmaker and old boarding school chum of Ed’s who had been trailing them around New York with an 8-mm video camera, documenting their every antic adventure, including Lukas’s attempt to memorize a deck of playing cards on the fiftythree-second elevator ride to the Empire State Building’s observation deck. (“We wanted to see if the fastest lift in the world was faster than the Austrian speed cards champion,” Ed deadpanned. “It wasn’t.”)

After a few drinks, Ed was keen to carry me deeper into the obscure underworld of mental athletic secrets. He offered to introduce me to the rituals of the KL7, a “secret society of memorizers” that he and Lukas cofounded at the Kuala Lumpur championships in 2003, and which, evidently, was not so secret.

“KL, as in Kuala Lumpur?” I asked.

“No, KL as in Knights of Learning, and the seven is because it started with seven of us,” Lukas explained, while sipping one of the three free beers he had just won by memorizing a deck of cards for the waitress. “It’s an international society for the development of education.”

“Membership in our society is an extraordinarily high honor,” Ed added.

Though the club’s endowment of more than a thousand dollars languishes in Lukas’s bank account, Ed conceded that the KL7 has never actually done much of anything, except get drunk together the evening after memory contests (occasionally aided by a sophisticated pressurized keg attachment designed by Lukas that folds up into a suitcase). When I pressed Ed for more information, he offered to demonstrate the society’s single cherished ceremony.

“Just call it a satanic ritual,” he said, and then asked Jonny, his documentarian, to set a timer on his wristwatch. “We each have exactly five minutes to drink two beers, kiss three women, and memorize forty-nine random digits. Why forty-nine digits? It’s seven squared.”

“I was surprised to discover that this is actually quite difficult,” said Lukas. He was wearing a shiny charcoal suit and a shinier tie, and had no trouble convincing the waitress, whom he’d already won over, to give him three pecks on the cheek.

“Technically that’s unsatisfactory, but we’ll count it,” Ed proclaimed, a rivulet of beer running down his chin. From his pocket he pulled out a page of printed numbers and tore it into sections. His finger raced across the scrap until it got to the forty-ninth digit, at which point he stood up and sputtered, “Almost done!” and then limped over to a nearby booth, where he tried to explain his predicament to three silver-haired women who seemed far too old to be enjoying this loud bar. With time running out, and before they could respond to his plea, he had leaned across the table and planted his lips on each of their sunken, flustered cheeks.

Ed returned triumphantly, pumping his fist and soliciting high fives from all of us. He ordered another round for the table.

I didn’t know quite what to make of Ed. He was, I was gradually discovering, an aesthete, in the true Oscar Wilde sense. More than anyone I’d ever met, he seemed to participate in life as if it were art, and to practice a studied, careful carefreeness. His sense of what is worthy seemed to overlap very little with any conventional sense of what is useful, and if there were one precept that could be said to govern his life, it is that one’s highest calling is to engage in enriching escapades at every turn. He was a genuine bon vivant, and yet he approached the subject of his PhD research, the relationship between memory and perception, with a rigor and seriousness that suggested he intended to accomplish big things. He was in no conventional sense handsome, and yet later that night, I watched him approach a woman in the street, ask for a cigarette, and a few minutes later walk away reciting her phone number. His “normal bar trick,” he told me, involves shimmying up to a young lady and inviting her to create an “arbitrarily long number,” and then promising to buy her a bottle of champagne should he successfully remember it.

Over the course of the evening, Ed regaled me with story after story of his adventures and instructive misadventures. There was the time he threw his shoeless self through the window of a bar in New Zealand in order to circumvent a bouncer. The time he crashed a supermodel’s party in London. (“It was easier then, I was in a wheelchair, and I could do a superior wheelie.”) The time he crashed a party at the British embassy in Paris. (“I noticed the ambassador following my dirty shoes all the way across the room.”) And how could he forget the twelve hours he spent panhandling for bus fare in downtown Los Angeles?

At the time, I may have sounded a note of skepticism about these self-mythologizing stories, but that was only because I didn’t yet know Ed well enough to recognize that he very well could have been understating their outrageousness. A few more drinks into the evening, it dawned on me that I’d spent the better part of the day with Ed and Lukas and neither of them had once called me by my name, though I was sure I’d told it to them when I first introduced myself. Ed had referred to me in front of the waitress as “our journalist friend,” and Lukas just hadn’t referred to me. These were evasions I knew well. But Ed had assured me earlier in the day that he could memorize the name and phone number of every girl he ever met. I thought that sounded like the kind of impressive skill that was bound to take one far in life. Bill Clinton is supposed to never forget a name and, well, look where that got him. But it occurred to me now that Ed’s “could” was a bit ambiguous, and might have been of the same nature as “He could count backward from a million”—as in, yeah, if he really wanted to. I asked Ed if he remembered my name.

“Of course. It’s Josh.”

“My last name?”

“Shit. Did you tell it to me?”

“Yes, Foer. Josh Foer. You’re human after all.”

“Ah, well—”

“I thought you were supposed to have a fancy technique for remembering people’s names.”

“In theory, I do. But its utility is inversely proportional to the amount of alcohol I’ve imbibed.”

Ed then explained to me his procedure for making a name memorable, which he had used in the competition to memorize the first and last names associated with ninety-nine different photographic head shots in the names-and-faces event. It was a technique he promised I could use to remember people’s names at parties and meetings. “The trick is actually deceptively simple,” he said. “It is always to associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine. It’s all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name. When you need to reach back and remember the person’s name at some later date, the image you created will simply pop back into your mind ... So, hmm, you said your name was Josh Foer, eh?” He raised an eyebrow and gave his chin a melodramatic stroke. “Well, I’d imagine you joshing me where we first met, outside the competition hall, and I’d imagine myself breaking into four pieces in response. Four/Foer, get it? That little image is more entertaining—to me, at least—than your mere name, and should stick nicely in the mind.” It occurred to me that this was a kind of manufactured synesthesia.

To understand why this sort of mnemonic trick works, you need to know something about a strange kind of forgetfulness that psychologists have dubbed the “Baker/baker paradox.” The paradox goes like this: A researcher shows two people the same photograph of a face and tells one of them that the guy is a baker and the other that his last name is Baker. A couple days later, the researcher shows the same two guys the same photograph and asks for the accompanying word. The person who was told the man’s profession is much more likely to remember it than the person who was given his surname. Why should that be? Same photograph. Same word. Different amount of remembering.

When you hear that the man in the photo is a baker, that fact gets embedded in a whole network of ideas about what it means to be a baker: He cooks bread, he wears a big white hat, he smells good when he comes home from work. The name Baker, on the other hand, is tethered only to a memory of the person’s face. That link is tenuous, and should it dissolve, the name will float off irretrievably into the netherworld of lost memories. (When a word feels like it’s stuck on the tip of the tongue, it’s likely because we’re accessing only part of the neural network that “contains” the idea, but not all of it.) But when it comes to the man’s profession, there are multiple strings to reel the memory back in. Even if you don’t at first remember that the man is a baker, perhaps you get some vague sense of breadiness about him, or see some association between his face and a big white hat, or maybe you conjure up a memory of your own neighborhood bakery. There are any number of knots in that tangle of associations that can be traced back to his profession. The secret to success in the names-and-faces event—and to remembering people’s names in the real world—is simply to turn Bakers into bakers—or Foers into fours. Or Reagans into ray guns. It’s a simple trick, but highly effective.

I tried using the technique myself to remember the name of the documentary filmmaker who had been trailing Ed and Lukas around town all week. He introduced himself as Jonny Lowndes. “We call him Pounds Lowndes,” Ed interjected. “He used to be heavyset in high school.” Since my older brother’s childhood nickname was Jonny, I closed my eyes and pictured the two of them together, arm in arm, gobbling up a pound cake.

“You know we could teach you more tricks like that,” Ed said. He turned to Lukas ebulliently. “I’m trying to think if by the end of the night we could have him winning the American championship?”

“I get the sense that you hold the Americans in rather low esteem,” I said.

“On the contrary, they just haven’t had the right coach,” he said, turning back to me. “I reckon you could win the championship next year with an hour’s practice a day.” He looked to Lukas. “Don’t you think that’s right?”

Lukas nodded.

“You and Tony Buzan both,” I said.

“Ah, yes, the estimable Tony Buzan,” Ed scoffed. “Did he try to sell you that nonsense about the brain being a muscle?”

“Um, yes, he did.”

“Anyone who knows the first thing about the respective characteristics of brains and muscles knows how risible that analogy is.” It was my first hint of Ed’s tortured relationship with Buzan. “Look, what you really need to do is bring me on as your coach, trainer, and manager—and, um, spiritual yogi.”

“And what would you get out of this relationship?” I asked.

“I’d get pleasure,” he responded with a smile. “Also, you being a journalist, I wouldn’t mind if, in the course of your writing about this experience, you managed to give the impression that I would be an excellent person to have tutoring your daughter in the Hamptons at, like, a squillion quid an hour.”

I laughed and told Ed that I’d give it some thought. I honestly wasn’t that interested in spending an hour a day pawing through playing cards, or memorizing pages of random numbers, or doing any of the other mental calisthenics that seemed to be involved in becoming a “mental athlete.” I have always embraced my own nerdiness—I was captain of my high school quiz bowl team and have long worn a watch with calculator functions—but this was a bit much even for me. And yet I was curious enough about learning where the limits of my memory lay, and intrigued enough by Ed, to consider this exercise. All the mental athletes I’d met had insisted that anyone was capable of improving his or her memory—that the untapped powers of S are inside all of us. I decided I was going to try to find out if that was really true. That night, when I got home, there was a short e-mail from Ed waiting in my in-box: “So, anyway, can I be your coach?”



Though it’s best not to be born a chicken at all, it is especially bad luck to be born a cockerel.

From the perspective of the poultry farmer, male chickens are useless. They can’t lay eggs, their meat is stringy, and they’re ornery to the hens that do all the hard work of putting food on our tables. Commercial hatcheries tend to treat male chicks like fabric cutoffs or scrap metal: the wasteful but necessary by-product of an industrial process. The sooner they can be disposed of—often they’re ground into animal feed—the better. But a costly problem has vexed egg farmers for millennia: It’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between male and female chickens until they’re four to six weeks old, when they begin to grow distinctive feathers and secondary sex characteristics like the rooster’s comb. Until then, they’re all just indistinguishable fluff balls that have to be housed and fed—at considerable expense.

Somehow it took until the 1920s before anyone figured out a solution to this costly dilemma. The momentous discovery was made by a group of Japanese veterinary scientists, who realized that just inside the chick’s rear end there is a constellation of folds, marks, spots, and bumps that to the untrained eye appear arbitrary, but when properly read, can divulge the sex of a day-old bird. When this discovery was unveiled at the 1927 World Poultry Congress in Ottawa, it revolutionized the global hatchery industry and eventually lowered the price of eggs worldwide. The professional chicken sexer, equipped with a skill that took years to master, became one of the most valuable workers in agriculture. The best of the best were graduates of the two-year Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School, whose standards were so rigorous that only 5 to 10 percent of students received accreditation. But those who did graduate earned as much as five hundred dollars a day and were shuttled around the world from hatchery to hatchery like top-flight business consultants. A diaspora of Japanese chicken sexers spilled across the globe.

Chicken sexing is a delicate art, requiring Zen-like concentration and a brain surgeon’s dexterity. The bird is cradled in the left hand and given a gentle squeeze that causes it to evacuate its intestines (too tight and the intestines will turn inside out, killing the bird and rendering its gender irrelevant). With his thumb and forefinger, the sexer flips the bird over and parts a small flap on its hindquarters to expose the cloaca, a tiny vent where both the genitals and anus are situated, and peers deep inside. To do this properly, his fingernails have to be precisely trimmed. In the simple cases—the ones that the sexer can actually explain—he’s looking for a barely perceptible protuberance called the “bead,” about the size of a pinhead. If the bead is convex, the bird is a boy, and gets thrown to the left; concave or flat and it’s a girl, sent down a chute to the right. Those cases are easy enough. In fact, a study has shown that amateurs can be taught to identify the bead with only a few minutes of training. But in roughly 80 percent of the chicks, the bead is not obvious and there is no single distinguishing trait the sexer can point to.

By some estimates there are as many as a thousand different vent configurations that a sexer has to learn to become competent. The job is made even more difficult by the fact that the sexer has to diagnose the bird with just a glance. There is no time for conscious reasoning. If he hesitates for even a couple seconds, his grip on the bird can cause a pullet’s vent to swell to look unquestionably like a cockerel’s. Mistakes are costly. In the 1960s, one hatchery paid its sexers a penny for each correctly sexed chick and deducted 35 cents for each one they got wrong. The best in the business can sex 1,200 chicks an hour with 98 to 99 percent accuracy. In Japan, a few superheroes of the industry have learned how to double clutch the chicks and sex them two at a time, at the rate of 1,700 per hour.

What makes chicken sexing such a captivating subject—the reason that academic philosophers and cognitive psychologists have authored dissertations about it, and the reason that my own research into memory had brought me to this arcane skill—is that even the best professional sexers can’t describe how they determine gender in the toughest, most ambiguous cases. Their art is inexplicable. They say that within three seconds they just “know” whether a bird is a boy or a girl, but they can’t say how they know. Even when carefully cross-examined by researchers, they can’t give reasons why one bird is a male and another is female. What they have, they say, is intuition. In some fundamental sense, the expert chicken sexer perceives the world—at least the world of chicken privates—in a way that is completely different from you or me. When they look at a chick’s bottom, they see things that a normal person simply does not see. What does chicken sexing have to do with my memory? Everything.

I decided it would be a good idea to dive (bellyflop, really) into the scientific literature. I was looking for some hard evidence that our memories might really be improvable in the dramatic way that Buzan and the mental athletes had promised. I didn’t have to search very hard. As I was combing the scientific literature, one name kept popping up in my research about memory improvement: K. Anders Ericsson. He was a psychology professor at Florida State University and the author of an article titled “Exceptional Memorizers: Made, Not Born.”

Before Tony Buzan mass-marketed the idea of “using your perfect memory,” Ericsson was laying the scientific groundwork for what’s known as “Skilled Memory Theory,” which explains how and why our memory is improvable. In 1981, he and fellow psychologist Bill Chase conducted a now-classic experiment on a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate, who has been immortalized in the literature by his initials, SF. Chase and Ericsson paid SF to spend several hours a week in their lab taking a simple memory test over and over and over again. It was similar to the test that Luria had given to S when he first walked into his office. SF sat in a chair and tried to remember as many numbers as possible as they were read off at the rate of one per second. At the outset, he could only hold about seven digits in his head at a time. By the time the experiment wrapped up—two years and 250 mind-numbing hours later—SF had expanded his ability to remember numbers by a factor of ten. The experiment shattered the old notions that our memory capacities are fixed. How SF did it, Ericsson believes, holds a key to understanding the basic cognitive processes underlying all forms of expertise—from mental athlete memorizers to chess grand masters to chicken sexers.

Everyone has a great memory for something. We’ve already seen the mnemonic gifts of London cabbies, and the scientific literature is filled with papers about the “superior memories” of waiters, the vast capacities of actors to remember lines, and the memory skills possessed by experts in a wide variety of other fields. Researchers have studied the exceptional memories of doctors, baseball fans, violinists, soccer players, snooker players, ballet dancers, abacus wranglers, crossword puzzlers, and volleyball defenders. Pick any human endeavor in which people excel, and I’ll give you even odds that some psychologist somewhere has written a paper about the exceptional memories possessed by experts in that field.

Why is it that veteran waiters don’t have to write down orders? Why are the best violinists in the world so good at memorizing new musical scores? How come, as one study proved, elite soccer players can glance at a soccer match on TV and reconstruct almost exactly what was happening in the game? One possible explanation might be that people with good memories for dinner orders get channeled into the food-service industry, or that the soccer players with the best memory for arrangements of players have a knack for clawing their way up to the premier league, or that people with a great eye for chicken ass naturally gravitate to the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School. But that seems unlikely. It makes much more sense to believe the causality works in the opposite direction. There is something about mastering a specific field that breeds a better memory for the details of that field. But what is that something? And can that something somehow be generalized, so that anyone can acquire it?

The Human Performance Lab, which Ericsson runs with a group of other FSU researchers, is where experts come to have their memories—and much else—tested. Ericsson is probably the world’s leading expert on experts. Indeed, he has achieved a degree of popular fame in recent years thanks to his research showing that experts tend to require at least ten thousand hours of training to achieve their world-class status. When I called him up and told him that I had been thinking about trying to train my own memory, he wanted to know whether I had started yet. I said I hadn’t really begun. He was thrilled; he told me he almost never gets the chance to study a novice in the process of becoming an expert. If I was serious, he said, he wanted to make me his research subject. He invited me down to Florida for a couple days to take a few tests. He wanted to get some baseline measurements of my memory before I started trying to improve it.

The Human Performance Lab occupies a plush office complex on the outskirts of Tallahassee. The bookshelves that line the walls overflow with an eclectic catalog of titles that have been relevant to Ericsson’s research: The Musical Temperament, Surgery of the Foot, How to Be a Star at Work, Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, Lore of Running, The Specialist Chick Sexer.

David Rodrick, a young research associate in the lab, gleefully described the place as “our toy palace.” When I arrived a couple weeks after my initial phone call with Ericsson, there was a floor-to-ceiling nine-by-fourteen-foot screen set up in the middle of one of the rooms displaying life-size video footage of a traffic stop. It was shot from the perspective of a police officer walking up to a stopped car.

For the previous few weeks, Ericsson and his colleagues had been bringing members of the Tallahassee SWAT team and recent graduates of the police academy into his lab and placing them in front of the big screen with a Beretta handgun loaded with blanks holstered to their belt. They bombarded the officers with one hair-raising scenario after another and watched how they responded. In one scenario, the officer saw a man walk toward the front door of a school with a suspicious bulge that looked like a bomb strapped to his chest. The researchers wanted to know how officers with different levels of experience would react.

The results were striking. Experienced SWAT officers immediately pulled their guns and yelled repeatedly for the suspect to stop. When he didn’t, they almost always shot him before he made it into the school. But recent graduates of the academy were more likely to let the man with the bomb stroll right up the steps and into the building. They simply lacked the experience to diagnose the situation and react properly. At least that would be the superficial explanation. But what exactly does experience mean? What exactly did the more senior officers see that the younger recruits didn’t? What were they doing with their eyes, what was going through their minds, how were they processing the situation differently? What were they pulling from their memories? Like the professional chicken sexers, the senior SWAT officers had a skill that was difficult to put into words. Ericsson’s research program can be summarized as an attempt to isolate the thing we call expertise, so that he can dissect it and identify its cognitive basis.

In order to do that, Ericsson and his colleagues asked the officers to talk aloud about what was going through their minds as the scenario unfolded. What Ericsson expected to learn from these accounts was the same thing he’s found in every other field of expertise that he’s studied: Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways. They can overcome one of the brain’s most fundamental constraints: the magical number seven.

In 1956, a Harvard psychologist named George Miller published what would become a classic paper in the history of memory research. It began with a memorable introduction:

My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

In fact, we are all persecuted by the integer Miller was referring to. His paper was titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Miller had discovered that our ability to process information and make decisions in the world is limited by a fundamental constraint: We can only think about roughly seven things at a time.

When a new thought or perception enters our head, it doesn’t immediately get stashed away in long-term memory. Rather, it exists in a temporary limbo, in what’s known as working memory, a collection of brain systems that hold on to whatever is rattling around in our consciousness at the present moment.

Without looking back and rereading it, try to repeat the first three words of this sentence to yourself.

Without looking back

Easy enough.

Now, without looking back, try to repeat the first three words of the sentence before that. If you find that quite a bit harder, it’s because that sentence has already been dropped by your working memory.

Our working memories serve a critical role as a filter between our perception of the world and our long-term memory of it. If every sensa