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How to Get a Photographic Memory

Posted February 02, 2015 8:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just look at a piece of paper and days or weeks later be able to recall everything that was written on it? How about looking around a room Sherlock Holmes-style and remembering everything in it down to the last scratch on the coffee table?

If you're like me, you're probably thinking Yeah right... I'd be happy to just memorize my grocery list accurately. Well, as much as we'd like to think that photographic memory is reserved for savants and geniuses only, the reality is that feats-of-the-mind are far more often linked to learned skills than to genetic abnormalities.

The skill or technique of memory training is called mnemonics. Basic mnemonics are implemented in the learning process in grade school; "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" is a popular mnemonic used to remember the order of operations for math problems. But more advanced techniques (or tricks, as some consider them) can be learned that aid in the memorization of seemingly impossibly long pieces of information. It's these techniques that the top mental athletes use in memory competitions.

I first learned of this concept when I stumbled onto the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. The book is a biography of sorts in which the author recounts his experience as a journalist investigating the sport of memory competition, eventually becoming a memory athlete himself through the U.S. and World Memory Championships. His story suggests that the skills used to memorize a deck of cards or a string of 100 random digits can (with enough practice) be learned and used by anyone with a normal functioning brain. The foundation of these skills is the memory palace.

The memory palace draws on the fact that most people remember information best when it is associated with an image. And the brain has a pretty good spatial and visual memory, particularly when it comes to the layout of structures and locations. For instance, you may not remember the details of conversations you had with your childhood friend, but I bet you can still visualize walking through the different rooms in his house, even if you haven't been there in ages. A memory palace is simply a specific place you've been (your friend's house, for example) which you then furnish with images of the things you wish to remember. To use your memory palace, just walk yourself through the building in your mind and look around at what you've placed there.

If you wanted to remember your grocery list, you could make an image out of each item on your list and put them in different rooms or hallways of your office building. Take a moment to "place" them there and visualize them in the room. The more distinct and vivid the images are, the easier they will be to remember. So instead of imagining just a plain old package of spaghetti on the living room, you could visualize your brother standing in the living room with spaghetti coming out his nose. Instead of pasta sauce in a jar on your bed, imagine pasta sauce strewn all over the bedroom carpet. The more creative, the better.

Feats like memorizing strings of numbers or decks of cards require the added step of assigning a creative image to each number or card type. Once these images are established (which for Foer took hours of training), the images - just like a shopping list - can be placed in a memory palace. Order is retained by walking through the palace in the same way that was done when placing the images. As technique is improved, speed and retention time will go up, which is the key to a mental athlete's success.

So now that you know how it's possible for a mere mortal to memorize a deck of cards, maybe you're wondering: does it matter? I've asked the same question, and so did Foer after emerging from the memory competition circuit. Certainly there is value in retaining what we hear and learn so that we can use it effectively. When forced to make decisions quickly, we need to act based on what we know rather than what we can look up. And what we remember from the past often determines where we go in the present. But, in an electronic age where information is quick to access and store, how important is memorization really? Are we missing out by not training our memories in this way?

Regardless, I found memory training (and what it tells us about the human brain) to be fascinating subject; one that will be hard to forget.

[This was a reflection drawn from the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. If you have interest in the subject of memory, I highly recommend this read.]

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#1

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/02/2015 12:20 PM

Excellent!

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#2

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/02/2015 1:38 PM

...or you could just use this thing....

...saying your memory is cloudy will take on a whole new meaning.....

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#3

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/03/2015 9:01 AM

The problem with most people's thinking is that they condition themselves to be lazy. The average time the TV is on in America is over 5 hours. That's enough crap being ingested into ones brain to muddle anyone's thought process. Even if the TV isn't specificallly being watched the information is still being taken into the subconscious part of their brains.

Or, people spend an inordinate amount of time entertaining themselves to death with video games, sports, movies, social media, etc. Rather than finding great books to read or audios from great people to listen to, or conversing with great thinkers, they end up vegging out and their brain becomes lethargic and sloppy.

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#4

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/03/2015 11:56 AM

My problem is, when I walk into a room to get something, I am likely to have forgotten what it was I came for. Trying to remember things by placing them in different mental rooms is doomed from the get go.

A list is a perfectly acceptable tool. Just because some circus performers can drive nails into wood with their fists doesn't mean I should start looking for ways to give up my hammer.

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#5

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 8:20 AM

I will have to read the mentioned book now.

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#6

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 8:51 AM

Who would want a photographic memory? Of all the things I remember, it is the things I cannot forget that vex me the most.

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#7
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Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 2:56 PM

I think this is true for most people.....here is an article I stumbled on, that explores this conundrum....

http://www.wired.com/2012/02/ff_forgettingpill/all/

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#8

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 3:26 PM

That is a very excellent article Solar. I got tired of reading it halfway thru like riding a roller coaster too long but one takeaway for me is a reminder of one of Albert's old sayings: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change".

I will finish reading the article later. It seems to be worth more than a cursory scan.

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#9

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 3:47 PM

Mnemonics definitely saved me in high school and college! I can still recall things like the order of the vertebrae - Cervical, Thoracic, Lumbar, Sacral, Coccygeal. I learned that at about nine years old using the mnemonic Cats That Leap Sleep Clumsily.

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#12
In reply to #9

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/05/2015 6:22 PM

Rhythmic chant from 4th grade......caution! do not read this...linking verbs

am is are, was were, be been being, have has had, do does did, shall will, should would, may might must can could....

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#10

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 3:53 PM

"Bad boys rape our young girls but Violet gives willingly"

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#11
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Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/04/2015 8:48 PM

for gold and silver... :-)

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#13
In reply to #11

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/05/2015 7:34 PM

I didn't have the advantage of an American education.

Could someone explain the meaning behind that. It seem significant.

Or was that just the US educational system, where market values rule.

BAB

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#14
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Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/05/2015 8:15 PM

Black
Brown
Red
Orange
Yellow
Green
Blue
Violet
Gray
White
Silver
Gold

If you are thinking that seems suspiciously like the resistor color code you would be right.

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#15
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Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/05/2015 8:33 PM

Thank you so much for that little gem. I may never have to look it up again.

BAB

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#17
In reply to #14

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

12/02/2015 2:04 PM

You forgot "No Color" or "blank"

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#16

Re: How to Get a Photographic Memory

02/06/2015 6:52 AM

Is Brian Williams subscribed to this thread...maybe someone should let him know about it.

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