The Talented Tenth
Not long after returning from England, I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the basement of my parents’ home at 6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap and an image in my mind’s eye of a lingerie-clad garden gnome (52632) suspended over my grandmother’s kitchen table. I suddenly looked up, wondering—remarkably, for the first time—what in the world I was doing with myself.
I realized I’d become fixated on the other competitors. With the help of detailed statistics kept on the memory circuit’s stats server, I had made myself familiar with each of their strengths and weaknesses, and I’d measured my own scores against theirs with compulsive regularity. The opponent whom I had become most preoccupied with was not the defending champ, Ram Kolli, a twenty-five-year-old business consultant from Richmond, Virginia, but rather Maurice Stoll, a thirty-year-old beauty-products importer and speed-numbers hotshot from outside Ft. Worth, Texas, who grew up in Germany. I had met him at the previous year’s competition. He had a shaved head and a goatee, spoke with an intimidating German accent (anything Germanic is intimidating at a memory contest), and was one of the only Americans to have ever crossed the Atlantic to compete in a European memory contest (he finished fifteenth at the World Memory Championship in 2004 and seventh at that year’s Memory World Cup). He held the U.S. records in both speed numbers (144 digits in five minutes) and speed cards (a single deck in a minute and fifty-six seconds). His only weaknesses were poetry (in which he was ranked ninety-ninth in the world) and insomnia. Everyone agreed he ought to have won the previous year’s contest but instead stalled out and finished fourth because he’d only gotten three hours of rest the night before. This year, if he could get to bed on time, I expected he was the favorite to win. And I was now putting in a solid half hour a day to ensure that he didn’t.
As I burrowed deeper into my mental training, I was starting to wonder if the sort of memorization practiced by mental athletes was not something like the peacock’s tail: impressive not for its utility, but for its profound lack of utility. Were these ancient techniques anything more than “intellectual fossils,” as the historian Paulo Rossi once put it, fascinating for what they tell us about the minds of a bygone era, but as out of place in our modern world as quill pens and papyrus scrolls?
That has always been the rap against memory techniques: They’re impressive but ultimately useless. The seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon declared, “I make no more estimation of repeating a great number of names or words upon once hearing ... than I do of the tricks of tumblers, funambuloes, baladines: the one being the same in the mind that the other is in the body, matters of strangeness without worthiness.” He thought the art of memory was fundamentally “barren.”
When the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci tried to introduce memory techniques to Chinese Mandarins studying for the imperial civil service exam, he was met with resistance. He planned to hook them first on European study skills before trying to hook them on the European god. The Chinese objected that the method of loci required so much more work than rote repetition, and claimed their way of memorizing was both simpler and faster. I could understand where they were coming from.
The demographics of your average memory contest are pretty much indistinguishable from those of a “Weird Al” Yankovic (five of spades) concert. An overwhelming number of contestants are young, white, male juggling aficionados. Which is why it’s impossible to miss the dozen or so students who show up at the U.S. championship each year in proper church attire. They are from the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the South Bronx, and their American history teacher, Raemon Matthews, is a Tony Buzan disciple.
If I had thought that the art of memory was just a form of mental peacocking, Matthews aimed to prove otherwise. He has dubbed the group of students he trains for the U.S. Memory Championship the “Talented Tenth,” after W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion that an elite corps of African-Americans would lift the race out of poverty. When I first encountered Matthews at the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship, he was pacing anxiously at the back of the room, while he waited for his students’ scores in the random words event to come in. Several of his students were vying for a top-ten finish, but as far as he was concerned, the real test of their memories was still two and a half months away, when they would sit for the New York State Regents exam. By the end of the year, he expected his students to have memorized every important fact, date, and concept in their U.S. history textbook using the same techniques they employed in the U.S. Memory Championship. He invited me to come visit his classroom to witness memory techniques being used “in the real world.”
To take him up on his offer, I had to pass through a metal detector and have my bag searched by a police officer before entering the Gompers school building. Matthews believes that the art of memory will be his students’ ticket out of a neighborhood where nine out of ten students are below average in reading and math, four out of five are living in poverty, and nearly half don’t graduate from high school. “The memorization of quotes allows a person to seem more legitimate,” he told them, while I sat in the back of his classroom. “Who are you going to be more impressed by, the person who has a litany of his own opinions, or the historian who can draw on the great thinkers who came before him?”
I listened to one student recite verbatim an entire paragraph from Heart of Darkness to answer a question about nineteenth-century global commerce. “When it comes time to do the AP test, he’ll pull out a quote like that,” said Matthews, a dapper dresser with a goatee, closely cropped hair, and a thick Bronx accent. Every in-class essay his students write must contain at least two memorized quotations, just one of many small feats of memory that he demands from them. After school, his students come back for an extracurricular class in memorization techniques.
“It’s the difference between only teaching a kid multiplication and giving him a calculator,” Matthews says of the memory skills he imparts to them. Not surprisingly, every single member of the Talented Tenth has passed the Regents exam each of the last four years, and 85 percent of them have scored a 90 or better. Matthews has won two citywide Teacher of the Year awards.
Students in the Talented Tenth must wear shirts and ties, and occasionally, at school assemblies, white gloves. Their classroom is plastered with posters of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. When they graduate, they receive a kente cloth with the words “Talented Tenth” embossed in gold. At the beginning of each class, the Talented Tenth stand behind their desks, arranged in a pair of facing aisles, and recite in unison a three-minute manifesto from memory that begins: “We are the very best our community has to offer. We will not get lower than 95 percent on any history exam. We are the vanguard of our people. Either walk with our glory and rise to the top with us, or step aside. For when we get to the top, we will reach back and raise you up with us.”
The forty-three kids in Matthews’s class are all honors students who had to pass a high bar just to get selected for the Talented Tenth. And Matthews works his students hard. “We don’t get no vacations,” one of them complained to me, while Matthews was standing close enough to overhear. “You work now so you can rest later,” he told the student. “You carry your books now so someone else can carry your books later.”
The success of Matthews’s students raises questions about the purposes of education that are as old as schooling itself, and never seem to go away. What does it mean to be intelligent, and what exactly is it that schools are supposed to be teaching? As the role of memory in the conventional sense has diminished, what should its place be in contemporary pedagogy? Why bother loading up kids’ memories with facts if you’re ultimately preparing them for a world of externalized memories?
In my own elementary and secondary education, at both public and private schools, I can recall being made to memorize exactly three texts: the Gettysburg Address in third grade, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in fourth grade, and Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy in tenth. That’s it. The only activity more antithetical than memorization to the ideals of modern education is corporal punishment.
The slow disappearance of classroom memorization had its philosophical roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s polemical 1762 novel, Émile: Or, On Education, in which the Swiss philosopher imagined a fictional child raised by means of a “natural education,” learning only through self-experience. Rousseau abhorred memorization, as well as just about every other stricture of institutional education. “Reading is the great plague of childhood,” he wrote. The traditional curriculum, he believed, was little more than fatuous “heraldry, geography, chronology and language.”
The educational ideology that Rousseau rebelled against truly was mind-numbing, and much in need of correction. More than a hundred years after Émile’s publication, when the muckraker Dr. Joseph Mayer Rice toured public schools in thirty-six cities, he came away appalled at what he saw, calling one New York City school “the most dehumanizing institution that I have ever laid eyes upon, each child being treated as if he possessed a memory and the faculty of speech, but no individuality, no sensibilities, no soul.” At the turn of the twentieth century, rote memorization was still the preferred way to put information, especially history and geography, into kids’ heads. Students could be expected to memorize poetry, great speeches, historical dates, times tables, Latin vocabulary, state capitals, the order of American presidents, and much else.
Memorization drills weren’t just about transferring information from teacher to student; they were actually thought to have a constructive effect on kids’ brains that would benefit them throughout their lives. Rote drills, it was thought, built up the faculty of memory. The what that was memorized mattered, but so too did the mere fact that the memory was being exercised. The same was thought to be true of Latin, which at the turn of the twentieth century was taught to nearly half of all American high school students. Educators were convinced that learning the extinct language, with its countless grammatical niceties and difficult conjugations, trained the brain in logical thinking and helped build “mental discipline.” Tedium was actually seen as a virtue. And the teachers were backed up by a popular scientific theory known as “faculty psychology,” which held that the mind consisted of a handful of specific mental “faculties” that could each individually be trained, like muscles, through rigorous exercise.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a group of leading psychologists began to question the empirical basis of “faculty psychology.” In his 1890 book Principles of Psychology, William James set out to see “whether a certain amount of daily training in learning poetry by heart will shorten the time it takes to learn an entirely different kind of poetry.” He spent more than two hours over eight successive days memorizing the first 158 lines of the Victor Hugo poem “Satyr,” averaging fifty seconds a line. With that baseline established, James set about memorizing the entire first book of Paradise Lost. When he returned to Hugo, he found that his memorization time had actually declined to fifty-seven seconds a line. Practicing memorization had made him worse at it, not better. It was just a single data point, but subsequent studies by the psychologist Edward Thorndike and his colleague Robert S. Woodworth also questioned whether “the general ability to memorize” was influenced by practice memorizing, and found only minor gains. They concluded that the ancillary benefits of “mental discipline” were “mythological” and that general skills, like memorization, were not nearly as transferable as had once been thought. “Pedagogues quickly realized that Thorndike’s experiments had undermined the rationale for the traditional curriculum,” writes the historian of education Diane Ravitch.
Into this void rushed a group of progressive educators led by the American philosopher John Dewey, who began making the case for a new kind of education that would radically break with the constricted curriculum and methods of the past. They echoed Rousseau’s romantic ideals of childhood, and put a new emphasis on “child centered” education. They did away with rote memorization and replaced it with a new kind of “experiential learning.” Students would study biology not by memorizing plant anatomy from a textbook but by planting seeds and tending gardens. They’d learn arithmetic not through times tables but through baking recipes. Dewey declared, “I would have a child say not, ’I know,’ but ’I have experienced.’ ”
The last century has been an especially bad one for memory. A hundred years of progressive education reform have discredited memorization as oppressive and stultifying—not only a waste of time, but positively harmful to the developing brain. Schools have deemphasized raw knowledge (most of which gets forgotten anyway), and instead stressed their role in fostering reasoning ability, creativity, and independent thinking.
But is it possible we’ve been making a huge mistake? The influential critic E. D. Hirsch Jr. complained in 1987: “We cannot assume that young people today know things that were known in the past by almost every literate person in the culture.” Hirsch has argued that students are being sent out into the world without the basic level of cultural literacy that is necessary to be a good citizen (what does it say that two thirds of American seventeen-year-olds can’t even tell you within fifty years when the Civil War occurred?), and what’s needed is a kind of educational counterreformation that reemphasizes hard facts. Hirsch’s critics have pointed out that the curriculum he advocates is Dead White Males 101. But if anyone seems qualified to counter that argument it is Matthews, who maintains that for all the Eurocentrism of the curriculum, the fact is that facts still matter. If one of the goals of education is to create inquisitive, knowledgeable people, then you need to give students the most basic signposts that can guide them through a life of learning. And if, as the twelfth-century teacher Hugh of St. Victor put it, “the whole usefulness of education consists only in the memory of it,” then you might as well give them the best tools available to commit their education to memory.
“I don’t use the word ’memory’ in my class because it’s a bad word in education,” says Matthews. “You make monkeys memorize, whereas education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning—you can’t analyze—without retrieving information.” And you can’t retrieve information without putting the information in there in the first place. The dichotomy between “learning” and “memorizing” is false, Matthews contends. You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning.
“Memory needs to be taught as a skill in exactly the same way that flexibility and strength and stamina are taught to build up a person’s physical health and well being,” argues Buzan, who often sounds like an advocate of the old faculty psychology. “Students need to learn how to learn. First you teach them how to learn, then you teach them what to learn.
“The formal education system came out of the military, where the least educated and most educationally deprived people were sent into the army,” he says. “In order for them not to think, which is what you wanted them to do, they had to obey orders. Military training was extremely regimented and linear. You pounded the information into their brains and made them respond in a Pavlovian manner without thinking. Did it work? Yes. Did they enjoy the experience? No, they didn’t. When the industrial revolution came, soldiers were needed on the machines, and so the military approach to education was transferred into school. It worked. But it doesn’t work over the long term.”
Like many of Buzan’s pontifications, this one conceals a kernel of truth beneath an overlay of propaganda. Rote learning—the old “drill and kill” method that education reformers have spent the last century rebelling against—is surely as old as learning itself, but Buzan is right that the art of memory, once at the center of a classical education, had all but disappeared by the nineteenth century.
Buzan’s argument that schools have been teaching memory in entirely the wrong way deeply challenges reigning ideas in education, and is often couched in the language of revolution. In fact, though Buzan doesn’t seem to see it this way, his ideas are not revolutionary so much as deeply conservative. His goal is to turn the clock back to a time when a good memory still counted for something.
Pinning down Tony Buzan for an interview is no easy task. He is on the road lecturing roughly nine months of the year, and boasts of having racked up enough frequent-flier miles to go to the moon and back eight times. What’s more, he seems to cultivate the sense of aloofness and inaccessibility that are a prerequisite for any self-respecting guru. When I finally corralled him behind a desk at the World Memory Championship to discuss the possibility of our sitting down for a couple hours, he opened a large three-ring binder and unfurled a colorful panoramic chart, perhaps three feet long. It was his calendar from the previous year, and it was filled with expansive, continuous blocks of travel—Spain, China, Mexico three times, Australia, America. There was one three-month period when he didn’t set foot in the United Kingdom. He told me that he absolutely didn’t have any time to speak with me for at least three or four weeks (by which time I would be back home in the United States), but he suggested I visit his estate halfway to Oxford on the river Thames and take some photographs while he was away.
I told him I didn’t see how I was likely to learn very much from an empty house.
“Oh, you’d learn quite a lot,” he said.
Eventually, through his assistant, I was able to fix an hour with Buzan in his limousine on his way home from the BBC studios in London, where he had just wrapped up a TV interview. I was told to go to a street corner in Whitehall and wait. “You won’t be able to miss Mr. Buzan’s car.”
There was, in fact, no missing it. The car, which pulled up about half an hour late, was a bright ivory 1930s taxicab that looked like it might have just been driven off a BBC set. The door flew open. “Step inside,” said Buzan, beckoning. “Welcome to my small, traveling, beautiful lounge.”
The first subject we spoke about, because I had to ask, was his unique wardrobe.
“I designed it myself,” he told me. He was wearing the same unusual dark navy suit with the large gold buttons that I’d seen him in at the U.S. championship months earlier. “I used to lecture in an offthe-peg suit, but I was tugging at it with my expansive gestures,” he told me. “So I studied fifteenth-, sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century swordfighters, and how their arms had not one iota of resistance from their wardrobes. Those ruffles and big sleeves weren’t just for show. They were for thrusting and parrying. I design my shirts so that I, too, am free to move.”
Everything about Buzan gives the strong impression of someone wanting to make a strong impression. He never swallows a syllable or slouches. His fingernails are as well cared for as the leather of his Italian shoes. There is always a pocket handkerchief tucked neatly in his breast pocket. He signs his letters “Floreant Dendritae!”—“May Your Brain Cells Flourish!”—and ends his phone messages “Tony Buzan, over and out!”
When I asked him about the source of his incredible self-confidence, he told me that he owes much of it to his extensive training in the martial arts. He has a black belt in aikido and is three quarters of his way to a black belt in karate. Sitting in the backseat of his limo, he demonstrated a series of jerky moves, a slice through the air, and a shadow punch. “The way I use these techniques is by not using them,” he said. “What’s the point of fighting if you know you can kill the other, i.e. human, or you can take out his eye, or rip out his tongue?”
Buzan is—he often found occasion to remind me—a modern Renaissance man: a student of dance (“ballroom, modern, jazz”), a composer (influences: “Philip Glass, Beethoven, Elgar”), an author of short stories about animals (under the nom de plume Mowgli, after the boy in The Jungle Book), a poet (his last collection, Concordea, consists entirely of poems written on and about his thirty-eight transatlantic flights aboard the supersonic Concorde), and a designer (not just of his wardrobe, but also of his home and much of the furniture in it).
About forty-five minutes outside of London, our ivory chariot pulled into Buzan’s estate on the river Thames. He asked that I not name its location in print. “Just call it Wind in the Willows territory.”
Inside his home, named the Gates of Dawn, we took off our shoes and tiptoed around a collection of drawings that had been laid out across the floor, part of an illustrated children’s book that he was working on “about a little boy who doesn’t do well in school, but does very well in his imagination.” There was a large television set with at least a hundred VHS tapes scattered about it, and a bookshelf in the foyer that held the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, several copies of the sci-fi thriller Dune, three copies of the Quran, a large quantity of books authored by Buzan, and not much else.
“Is this your library?” I asked.
“I’m only here three months of the year. I have libraries in several other places around the world,” he said.
Buzan revels in travel, and in being a man of the world. Once, when I asked him where he’s able to find the concentration to turn out two or three books a year, he told me that he has found serene spots to work on almost every continent. “In Australia at the Great Barrier Reef, I write. In Europe, wherever there are oceans, I write. In Mexico, I write. At the Great West Lake in China, I write.” Buzan has been traveling since he was a young boy. He was born in London in 1942, but moved with his brother and parents—his mother was a legal stenographer, his father an electrical engineer—to Vancouver at age eleven. He was, he says, “basically a normal kid, in normal trouble, in normal schools.”
“My best friend growing up was a boy named Barry,” Buzan recalled, sitting outside on his patio with his pink shirt unbuttoned and a pair of large, wraparound geriatric sunglasses protecting his eyes. “He was always in the 1-D classes, while I was in 1-A. One-A was for the bright kids, D for the dunces. But when we went out into nature, Barry could identify things by the way they flew over the horizon. Just from their flight patterns, he could distinguish between a red admiral, a painted thrush, and a blackbird, which are all very similar. So I knew he was a genius. And I got a top mark in an exam on nature, a perfect mark, answering questions like ’Name two fish you can find living in an English stream.’ There are a hundred and three. But when I got back my perfect mark on the test, I suddenly realized that the kid sitting down the hall in the dunces’ class, my best friend, Barry, knew more than I knew—much more than I knew—in the subject in which I was supposedly number one. And therefore, he was number one, and I was not number one.
“And suddenly, I realized the system that I was in did not know what intelligence was, didn’t know how to identify smart and not smart. They called me the best, when I knew I wasn’t, and they called him the worst, when he was the best. I mean, there could be no more antipodal environment. So I began to question: What is intelligence? Who says? Who says you’re smart? Who says you’re not smart? And what do they mean by that?” Those questions, at least according to Buzan’s tidy personal narrative, dogged him until he got to college.
Buzan’s introduction to the art of memory, the moment that set his entire life on its present path, came, he explained, in the first minutes of his first class on the first day of his first year at the University of British Columbia. His English professor, a dour man “built like a very short wrestler with red tufts of hair on his otherwise bald head” walked into the class and proceeded, with his hands behind his back, to call out the roll of students perfectly. “Whenever someone was absent, he told off their name, their father’s name, their mother’s name, their date of birth, phone number, and address,” recalls Buzan. “And as soon as he’d done it, he looked at us with a sneer on his face. That was the beginning of my love affair with memory.”
After class, Buzan charged down the hall after his professor. “I said, ’Professor, how did you do that?’ He turned to me and he said, ’Son, I’m a genius.’ So I said, ’Sir, that is obvious. But I still want to know how you did it.’ He simply said, ’No.’ Every day we had English for the next three months, I tested him. I felt he had the Holy Grail, and he wouldn’t share it. He despised his students. He thought they were a waste of time. Then one day he said, ’In the beginning of this miserable relationship between myself and yourselves, I demonstrated the exquisite power of human memory and none of you even noticed, so I’m now going to put on the board the code by which I managed to accomplish that extraordinary feat, and I am utterly convinced that none of you will even recognize the treasures put before you—these pearls before swine.’ He winked at me and he put up the code. It was the Major System. Suddenly, I realized I could memorize anything.”
Buzan left class that day in a trance. It occurred to him, for the first time, that he had not even the most basic idea about how the complicated machinery of his mind worked. And that seemed odd. If the simplest memory trick could dramatically increase the amount of information a person could remember, and nobody had bothered to teach him that trick until he was twenty years old, what else was there that he’d never learned?
“I went to the library and I said, ’I want a book on how to use my brain.’ The librarian sent me to the medical section, and I came back and said, ’I don’t want a book on how to operate on my brain. I want a book on how to operate it. Slightly different.’ She said, ’Oh, there are no books on that.’ I thought, you get an operations manual on your car, your radio, your TV, but no operations manual on the human brain?” In search of something that might elucidate his professor’s feat of memory, Buzan found himself drawn to the library’s ancient history section, where his professor had suggested he might find some of the original ideas about improving memory. He began reading up on Greek and Roman mnemonics (in Buzan’s pronunciation, the M is not silent), and practicing the techniques in his spare time. It wasn’t long before he was using the Ad Herennium’s advice about loci and images to study for exams—even to memorize all his notes from entire courses.
After graduating from college, Buzan went on to work a collection of odd jobs in Canada, first as a farmer (“I thought I’d take that job just to have ’shoveling shit’ at the top of my CV”), then in construction. In 1966, the same year that Frances Yates published The Art of Memory, the first major modern academic work to delve into the rich history of mnemonics, Buzan returned to London to become the editor of Intelligence , the international journal of Mensa, the high-IQ society, which he had joined in college. Around the same time, he was hired by the city to work as a substitute teacher at difficult inner-city schools in East London. “I was a special have-brain-will-travel teacher,” he says. “If a teacher got beaten up, I was the next one into that classroom.”
In most cases, Buzan had just a short amount of time with each of the classes he was subbing for, a few days at most, and hardly enough for even the most well-intentioned teacher to believe he could make any difference. In search of ways to help his troubled students, and perhaps rub off a bit of his own abundant self-confidence on them, Buzan turned to the old memory techniques he had first learned in college. “I would go into the classroom and ask the students whether they were stupid or not, because everyone had been calling them stupid, and sadly they believed they were stupid,” says Buzan. “They had been inculcated with the idea of their own incapacity. I said, ’OK, let’s check it out,’ and I’d give them a memory test, which they’d fail. I’d say, ’Seems you’re right about being stupid.’ Then I’d teach them a memory technique, and then I’d retest them, and they’d get twenty out of twenty. Then I’d basically say, ’You told me you were stupid, you proved you were stupid, and then you just got a perfect score on a test.’ So I’d get them to question: What’s going on here? For some of the students who’d never gotten a perfect score on an exam, this was quite a revelation.”
Having the opportunity not only to practice the art of memory but also now to teach it allowed Buzan to start developing the old techniques in new directions, particularly when it came to note taking. Over the course of several years, he created what he believed was a completely new system for taking notes that took advantage of the ancient wisdom of the Ad Herennium.
“I was trying to get to the essence—the queen’s jelly—of what note taking was all about,” he says. “That led me to codes and symbols, images and arrows, underlining and color.” Buzan called his new system Mind Mapping, a term he later trademarked. One creates a Mind Map by drawing lines off main points to subsidiary points, which branch out further to tertiary points, and so on. Ideas are distilled into as few words as possible and whenever possible are illustrated with images. It’s a kind of outline, exploded radially across the page in a rainbow of colors, a web of associations that looks like a prickly bush, or a neuron’s branching dendrites. And because it is full of colorful images arranged in order across the page, it functions as a kind of memory palace scrawled on paper.
“In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus,” says Buzan. “The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.” If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be at coming up with new ideas. As Buzan likes to point out, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses.
The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counterintuitive. Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment.
This is what the art of memory was ultimately most useful for. It was not merely a tool for recording but also a tool of invention and composition. “The realization that composing depended on a wellfurnished and securely available memory formed the basis of rhetorical education in antiquity,” writes Mary Carruthers. Brains were as organized as modern filing cabinets, with important facts, quotations, and ideas stuffed into neat mnemonic cubbyholes, where they would never go missing, and where they could be recombined and strung together on the fly. The goal of training one’s memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas. “As an art, memory was most importantly associated in the Middles Ages with composition, not simply with retention,” argues Carruthers. “Those who practiced the crafts of memory used them—as all crafts are used—to make new things: prayers, meditations, sermons, pictures, hymns, stories, and poems.”
In 1973, the BBC caught wind of Buzan’s work on Mind Mapping and mnemonics and brought him in for a meeting with the network’s head of education. The ten-program BBC series and accompanying book that came out of that meeting, both of which were titled Use Your Head, helped turn Buzan into a minor British celebrity and made him realize that there was enormous commercial potential in the memory techniques he was promoting. He began taking his ideas, many of which were borrowed directly from the ancient and medieval memory treatises, and repackaging them in a steady stream of self-help books. To date, he’s published nearly 120 titles, including Use Your Perfect Memory, Make the Most of Your Mind, Use Both Sides of Your Brain, Use Memory, Make the Most of Your Mind, Use Both Sides of Your Brain, Use Your Memory, and Master Your Memory. (At one point, I was alone with Buzan’s chauffeur long enough to ask his opinion of his boss’s work. “Same meat, different gravy” was his private assessment of Buzan’s ouevre.)
To his credit, Buzan is undeniably a marketing genius. He has established franchises of Buzan-licensed instructors all over the world who are trained to teach his memory enhancement, speed reading, and Mind Mapping courses. Today there are over three hundred Buzan-licensed instructors in more than sixty countries. And a thousand teachers around the world are officially teaching Buzan-endorsed memory systems. He estimates that over his entire career the gross sales of all Buzan products, including books, tapes, television programs, training courses, brain games, and lectures, exceeds $300 million.
The competitive memory community breaks cleanly into two camps: those who think Tony Buzan is the second coming of Jesus Christ and those who think he has gotten rich peddling overhyped, sometimes unscientific ideas about the brain. They point out, not unfairly, that while Buzan preaches a “global educational revolution,” he has had far more success in creating a global commercial empire than in actually getting his methods into classrooms.
What is especially frustrating for folks like Ed, who take the art of memory seriously and believe in Tony Buzan’s basic message that the art of memory still has a place in the modern classroom, is that the messenger can often be a bit of an embarrassment.
Buzan has a troubling habit of lapsing into pseudoscience and hyperbole when he describes how wonderfully revolutionary memory training can be, or how he has “changed the lives of millions.” He’s been known to say preposterous things, like “Very young children use 98 percent of all thinking tools. By the time they’re 12, they use about 75 percent. By the time they’re teenagers, they’re down to 50 percent, by the time they’re in university it’s less than 25 percent, and it’s less than 15 percent by the time they’re in industry.”
The fact that Buzan can go around making outrageous claims about the brain and not only be widely believed but actually celebrated is evidence of what a wild frontier the world of brain science is, and how much people want to believe that their memories are improvable. The truth is, the operating manual for the brain that Buzan went looking for in college still hasn’t been written.
But for all the pseudoscience and hyperbole that Buzan employs in promoting Mind Mapping, there actually is scientific evidence that his systems work. Researchers at the University of London recently gave a group of students a six-hundred-word passage to read, after teaching half of them how to take notes with a Mind Map. The other half were instructed to take notes normally. When they were tested a week later, the students who used Mind Maps retained about 10 percent more factual knowledge from the passage than the students who used conventional note-taking techniques. That may be a modest gain, but it’s hardly insignificant.
My own impression of Mind Mapping, having tried the technique to outline a few parts of this book, is that much of its usefulness comes from the mindfulness necessary to create the map. Unlike standard note-taking, you can’t Mind Map on autopilot. My sense is that it’s a reasonably efficient way to brainstorm and organize information, but hardly the “ultimate mind-power tool” or “revolutionary system” that Buzan makes it out to be.
Raemon Matthews doesn’t have any doubt about the effectiveness of Mind Maps or memory training. At the end of the year, each of his students creates an intricately detailed Mind Map of the entire U.S. history textbook. Most of the students’ maps take up an entire three-panel science-fair board with arrows linking every word and image, from Plymouth Rock in one corner to Monica Lewinsky in the other. “If they get an essay question about the causes of World War I on their AP test, they can just see that part of the map in the mind, and the causes are right there,” says Matthews. There might be an image of a black hand to represent the Serbian nationalist organization that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin belonged to, next to a machine gun wearing running shoes, which represents the arms race that swept Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, and beside that a pair of triangles to represent the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente.
Matthews takes every opportunity to turn facts into images. “My students were having a hard time getting their heads around the differences in the economic systems of Lenin and Stalin,” he told me. “I told them, ’Look, Lenin is sitting on the toilet, and he’s constipated because of his mixed economy. Stalin busts into the stall and says, “What are you doing in here?” And Lenin goes, “Land, peace, and bread.” ’ They never forgot that image.”
A valid criticism of these sorts of mnemonics is that they are a form of decontextualized knowledge. They are superficial, the epitome of learning without understanding. This is education by PowerPoint, or worse, CliffsNotes. What can an image of Lenin and Stalin in the bathroom really tell you about communist economics? But Matthews’s point is that you’ve got to start somewhere, and you might as well start by installing in students’ minds the sorts of memories that are least likely to be forgotten.
When information goes “in one ear and out the other,” it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to. This is something I was personally confronted with not long ago, when I had the opportunity to visit Shanghai for three days while reporting an article. Somehow I had managed to scoot through two decades of schooling without ever learning even the most basic facts about Chinese history. I’d never learned the difference between Ming and Qing, or even that Kublai Khan was actually a real person. I spent my time in Shanghai roving around the city like any good tourist, visiting museums, trying to get a superficial grasp of Chinese history and culture. But my experience of the place was severely impoverished. There was so much I didn’t take in, so much I was unable to appreciate, because I didn’t have the basic facts to fasten other facts to. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know, it was that I didn’t have the ability to learn.
This paradox—it takes knowledge to gain knowledge—is captured in a study in which researchers wrote up a detailed description of a half inning of baseball and gave it to a group of baseball fanatics (“experts” is the term Ericsson would use) and a group of less avid fans to read. Afterward they tested how well their subjects could recall the half inning. The baseball fanatics structured their recollections around important game-related events, like runners advancing and runs scoring. They were able to reconstruct the half inning in sharp detail. One almost got the impression they were reading off an internal scorecard. The less avid fans remembered fewer important facts about the game and were more likely to recount superficial details like the weather. Because they lacked a detailed internal representation of the game, they couldn’t process the information they were taking in. They didn’t know what was important and what was trivial. They couldn’t remember what mattered. Without a conceptual framework in which to embed what they were learning, they were effectively amnesics.
Could any less be said of those two thirds of American teens who don’t have a clue when the Civil War occurred? Or the 20 percent who don’t know who the United States fought against in World War II? Or the 44 percent who think that the subject of The Scarlet Letter was either a witch trial or a piece of correspondence? Progressive education reform has accomplished many things. It has made school a lot more pleasant, and a lot more interesting. But it’s also brought with it costs for us as individuals and as citizens. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.
Of course, the goal of education is not merely to cram a bunch of facts into students’ heads; it’s to lead them to understand those facts. Nobody would agree with that more than Raemon Matthews. “I want thinkers, not just people who can repeat what I tell them,” he says. But even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
The people whose intellects I most admire always seem to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory (there are savants who remember much but understand little, just as surely as there are forgetful old professors who remember little but understand much), but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.