Congratulations to Joshua Foer. He’s really going to have a story to write about this time, isn’t he?” announced the play-by-play man Kenny Rice. “He came here really just to see what it would take and he’s going home a champion.”
“Well, not bad for a rookie, Joshua,” said Ron Kruk, the HDNet reporter who had ascended the stage with a microphone in hand for a postgame interview. “You came in and covered this event a couple times. How key was that experience in your becoming so successful and winning the U.S. Memory Championship today?”
“I think it was important but I think the practice I put in leading up to today was probably more important,” I said.
“Well, it paid off for you today, definitely. You’re on your way to the world championships.”
That absurd thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
“You’ve been there and covered that as a journalist. How is that going to help you?”
I laughed. “I don’t have any chance in the world championships, to be honest. Those people can memorize a deck of cards in, like, thirty seconds. They’re extraterrestrials, basically.”
“I’m sure you’ll do the United States proud. We’re all counting on you. You know, if you win the Super Bowl, you say, ’I’m going to Disneyland.’ If you win the U.S. Memory Championship, you say ...”
He shoved the microphone in my face. I was supposed to answer that I was going to Kuala Lumpur, I guess. Or maybe I was supposed to say Disneyland. I was confused. And very, very tired. And the cameras were rolling. “Um. I don’t know,” I said. I was at a loss. “I think I’m going home.”
As soon as I got off the podium, I rang Ed from the nearest pay phone. It was mid-morning in Australia, and he was standing in the outfield of a cricket pitch, engaging, he said, in a bit of “experimental philosophy.”
“Ed, it’s Josh—”
“Did you win?” The words rushed out of his mouth as if he’d been waiting all morning for my call.
He let out a roar. “What a spectacular coup! Well done, man, well done! You know what this means, right? You are now the undisputed owner of the brains of America!”
The next morning, out of curiosity, I went to the memory circuit’s online bulletin board to see if the full scores from the competition had been posted yet, and what, if anything, the Europeans had to say about a novice having bested the American field. Ben had already written up a fourteen-page report on the championship. The last section included a few words on the new champion: “I was impressed with his performance, considering how short a time he’s been training, and I think he might just be the person who takes American memory competitions to new heights,” Ben wrote. “He’s learned his techniques from Europeans, he’s been to the competitions over here, and he’s not restricted like the others by the low standards necessary to make it big in America. He’s got a genuine passion for the sport, and I think he could go on to be not just a grand master, but maybe the first American to get into the top echelon of memory competitors. And when he does, no doubt his countrymen will up their game to keep up with him. It only takes one person to inspire others. So I think the future looks bright for memory in America!”
The U.S. memory champion turns out to be a minor (OK, very minor) celebrity. All of a sudden, Ellen DeGeneres wanted to talk to me, and Good Morning America and the Today show were calling to ask if I’d memorize a deck of cards on the air. ESPN wanted to know if I’d learn the NCAA tournament brackets for one of their morning shows. Everyone wanted to see the monkey perform his tricks.
The biggest shock of my newfound stardom (or loserdom, depending on your perspective, I suppose) was that I was now the official representative of all 300 million citizens of the United States of America to the World Memory Championship. This was not a position I had ever expected to be in. At no point during my training did it ever occur to me that I might someday go head-to-head with the likes of Ed Cooke, Ben Pridmore, and Gunther Karsten, the superstars I had initially set out to write about. In all my hours of training, I hardly ever thought to compare my practice scores to theirs. I was a beer league softball right fielder; they were the New York Yankees.
When I showed up in London at the end of August (the championship was moved at the last minute from Malaysia), I brought along my earmuffs, which I’d painted with Captain America stars and stripes; fourteen decks of playing cards I would try to memorize in the hour cards event; and a Team U.S.A. T-shirt. My principle ambition was simply not to embarrass myself or my country. I also set myself two secondary goals: to finish in the top ten of the thirty-seven-person field and to earn the title of grand master of memory.
As it turned out, both goals were beyond my reach. As the official representative of the greatest superpower on earth, I’m afraid to say I gave the world an entirely mediocre impression of America’s collective memory. Though I learned a respectable nine and a half decks of cards in an hour (half a deck short of the grand master standard), my score in hour numbers was a humiliating 380 digits (620 short of grand master). I did manage a third place showing in names and faces, an accomplishment I chalked up to the fact that the packet of names we’d been given to memorize was a veritable United Nations of ethnic monikers. Since I came from the most multicultural country in the world, few of them were unfamiliar to me. Overall, I finished in thirteenth place out of the thirty-seven competitors, behind just about every German, Austrian, and Brit—but, I’m pleased to say, ahead of the French guy, and the entire Chinese team.
On the last afternoon of the championship, Ed took me aside and told me that in recognition of my “fine memory and upstanding character” I would, that night, be offered election into the KL7, provided I could pass the secret society’s hallowed initiation ritual.
This gesture, more even than my American championship trophy, signaled true achievement in the world of the memory circuit. I knew that the three-time world champion Andi Bell had never been offered membership in the KL7. Neither had the majority of the world’s three dozen grand masters of memory. The only other inductee that year was to be Joachim Thaler, an affable seventeen-year-old Austrian, and he was only invited into the club after placing third in two consecutive world championships. The KL7’s membership offer brought my journey full circle in a way I never could have anticipated when I had first set out as an outsider hoping to chronicle the bizarre culture of competitive memorizers. Now I would truly, officially become one of them.
Later that evening, after the young German law student Clemens Mayer wrapped up the world title, and after the awards ceremony at which a bronze medal was placed around my neck for my third-place finish in the names-and-faces event, the entire memory circuit gathered for a celebratory dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the grand old restaurant where the greatest chess players of nineteenth-century London used to gather, and where one of the most legendary chess matches of all time, the “Immortal Game” of 1851, was played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Several members of the KL7 ducked out before dessert and congregated in the lobby of charter member Gunther Karsten’s hotel down the street.
Ed, who had traveled across town wearing two silver medals around his neck (for his sixteen decks in the hour cards event and 133 consecutive digits in spoken numbers), sat down in a leather chair next to me, under a large carved stone fireplace. “Let me lay this out for you,” he said. “In order to join our ranks, you will need to accomplish the following three tasks within five minutes: You will have to drink two beers, memorize forty-nine digits, and kiss three women. Do you understand the task before you?”
Gunther paced back and forth behind me in a skin-tight undershirt.
“This is eminently doable, Josh,” Ed said, removing his watch from his wrist. “We’re going to give you one minute of preparation time to decide if you want to down the beers before you memorize or while you memorize. But as a cautionary tale, let me inform you that someone once tried to memorize the forty-nine digits, and then drank the two pints immediately before recall, and he is not yet a member of the KL7.” He looked down at his watch. “Either way, the clock starts ticking when I say go.”
One of the mental athletes, who was not in the KL7 but who had tagged along to the induction ceremony, scribbled out forty-nine digits on the back of a business card. Ed screamed, “Go,” and I cupped my hands around my ears as makeshift muffs and started memorizing: 7 . . . 9 . . . 3 . . . 8 . . . 2 . . . 6 . . . I took a big gulp of beer between every sixth digit. Just as I finished etching an image of the final two digits, Ed called out, “Time!” and stripped the numbers out of my hand.
I lifted my head out of my hands, and started smoothly listing off digits. But when I got to the last locus of my memory palace, I found my image of the final two digits had evaporated. I ran through every possible digit combination from 00 to 99, but none of them fit. I opened my eyes and begged for a hint. There was silence.
“I didn’t make it, did I?”
“No, I’m sorry, forty-seven digits will not suffice,” Ed solemnly pronounced to the assembled members of the club. He turned back to address me. “I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t make it my first time either,” said Gunther, patting me on the shoulder.
“Does this mean I’m not in the KL7?”
Ed tightened his lips and shook his head. His response was surprisingly stern. “No, Josh. You’re not.”
“Please, Ed, isn’t there something you can do?” I pleaded.
“I’m afraid friendship is getting in the way of KL7 business. If you want to become a member of our club, you’re going to have to start over.” He beckoned for the waitress. “Believe me, it’s much more impressive to get in to the KL7 the farther along into the evening you go.”
A new table of forty-nine digits was drawn up, and two more pints were poured. This time, miraculously, my images were as clear as any I’d created all weekend—and twice as obscene. And unlike my first goround, I even had enough spare time to take one extra walk through my palace. When Ed called time, I closed my eyes and read off the forty-nine digits as confidently as if I’d been practicing them all day.
Ed stood up and gave me a high five and a hug. But Gunther, who was by now, like me, quite drunk, was not appeased. He insisted on one last hurdle before I could be officially inducted into the KL7. “You must still kiss three times the knee of a strange woman,” he said.
“One knee? Three times? Now you’re just making the rules up as we go,” I protested.
“This is how it is,” he said.
He took me by the arm and pulled me into an adjoining room of the bar, where he tried to explain the situation to a pair of middle-aged Irish women who were quietly enjoying glasses of wine. I seem to remember telling one of them not to worry, that there was nothing at all weird about the situation: We were memory champions, and this was actually quite an honor for her knee. I also seem to recall that line of logic not working, but Gunther coming up with something even more persuasive. Somehow I ended up on one knee giving three pecks to some poor woman’s bare kneecap, after which Gunther hoisted my arm into the air and declared that I had met every challenge, passed every test, and deserved admission to the world’s most esteemed organization of mental athletes. “Welcome to our great club KL7!” he shouted.
My memories of the rest of that evening are splotchy. I remember sitting with Tony Buzan on a couch and repeatedly telling him that he was “the Man,” while ostentatiously winking at Ed over his shoulder. I remember Ben joking that the waitress must have thought we were all a bunch of weirdos. I remember Ed telling me that “our friendship is epic.”
Looking back at my reporter’s notebook from that night, the gradual diminishment of my mental state is obvious. Over the course of the evening my handwriting starts to scrawl across the page. It is barely legible today, though one page is clear enough: “Holy Crap! I’m in the KL7! And I think I’m in the Women’s Bathroom!”
On the facing page of my notebook, the handwriting all of a sudden becomes clean again, and transitions into the third person. I had become too inebriated to write, and was having too much fun in any case. I handed off my notebook to the nearest sober person I could find, and told her to try to be objective. There was no point pretending I was still a journalist.
Having spent the better part of a year trying to improve my memory, I returned to Florida State University to spend another day and a half being retested by Anders Ericsson and his grad students Tres and Katy in the same cramped office where almost a year earlier I had undergone a top-to-bottom examination of my memory. With Tres once again looking over my shoulder, and a head-mounted microphone once again dangling before my mouth, I retook the same battery of tests, as well as a handful of new ones.
So had I improved my memory? By every objective measure, I had improved something. My digit span, the gold standard by which working memory is measured, had doubled from nine to eighteen. Compared with my tests almost a year earlier, I could recall more lines of poetry, more people’s names, more pieces of random information thrown my way. And yet a few nights after the world championship, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as I was walking in the door to my parents’ house that I’d driven a car to dinner. I hadn’t just forgotten where I parked it. I’d forgotten I had it.
That was the paradox: For all of the memory stunts I could now perform, I was still stuck with the same old shoddy memory that misplaced car keys and cars. Even while I had greatly expanded my powers of recall for the kinds of structured information that could be crammed into a memory palace, most of the things I wanted to remember in my everyday life were not facts or figures or poems or playing cards or binary digits. Yes, I could memorize the names of dozens of people at a cocktail party, and that was surely useful. And you could give me a family tree of English monarchs, or the terms of the American secretaries of the interior, or the dates of every major battle in World War II, and I could learn that information relatively fast, and even hold on to it for a while. These skills would have been a godsend in high school. But life, for better or worse, only occasionally resembles high school.
While my digit span may have doubled, could it really be said that my working memory was twice as good as it had been when I started my training? I wish I could say it was. But the truth is, it wasn’t. When asked to recall the order of, say, a series of random inkblots or a series of color swatches or the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar, I was no better than average. My working memory was still limited by the same magical number seven that constrains everyone else. Any kind of information that couldn’t be neatly converted into an image and dropped into a memory palace was just as hard for me to retain as it had always been. I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed to have remained fundamentally unchanged.
And yet clearly I had changed. Or at least how I thought about myself had changed. The most important lesson I took away from my year on the competitive memory circuit was not the secret to learning poetry by heart, but rather something far more global and, in a way, far more likely to be of service in my life. My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. This was a tremendously empowering discovery. It made me ask myself: What else was I capable of doing, if only I used the right approach?
Once our testing had wrapped up, I asked Ericsson whether he thought anyone who’d put in the same amount of time as I did could have improved his memory to the degree that I had.
“I think that with only one data point, we don’t know,” he told me. “But it’s rare for someone to make the kind of commitment you made, and I think your willingness to take on the challenge may make you different. You’re clearly not a random person, but on the other hand, I’m not sure there’s anything in how you improved that is completely outside the range of what a motivated college student could do.”
When I started on this journey, standing with my journalist’s notebook in the back of the Con Edison auditorium more than a year earlier, I didn’t know where it would lead, how thoroughly it would take over my life, or how it would eventually alter me. But after having learned how to memorize poetry and numbers, cards and biographies, I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.
The problem that bedeviled the synesthete S and the fictional Funes was an inability to distinguish between those details that were worth paying attention to and those that weren’t. Their compulsive remembering was clearly pathological, but I can’t help but imagine that their experience of the world was also, perversely, richer. Nobody would want to have their attention captured by every triviality, but there is something to be said for the value of not merely passing through the world, but also making some effort to capture it—if only because in trying to capture it, one gets in the habit of noticing, and appreciating.
I confess that I never got good enough at filling memory palaces on the fly to feel comfortable throwing out my Dictaphone and notebook. And as someone whose job requires knowing a little bit about a lot, my reading habits are necessarily too extensive to be able to practice more than the occasional intensive reading and memorizing that Ed preaches. Though I committed quite a few poems to heart using memory techniques, I still haven’t tackled a work of literature longer than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Even once I’d reached the point where I could squirrel away more than thirty digits a minute in memory palaces, I still only sporadically used the techniques to memorize the phone numbers of people I actually wanted to call. I found it was just too simple to punch them into my cell phone. Occasionally, I’d memorize shopping lists, directions, or to-do lists, but only in the rare circumstances when there wasn’t a pen available to jot them down. It’s not that the techniques didn’t work. I am walking proof that they do. It’s that it is so hard to find occasion to use them in the real world in which paper, computers, cell phones, and Post-its can handle the task of remembering for me.
So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged. That’s what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.
Before the KL7 festivities degraded into a debauched free-for-all of blindfolded chess games and drunken recitations of the previous day’s poem, Gunther cornered me on a couch and asked if I would continue competing on the memory circuit. I told him that a not small part of me wanted to keep it up. It was, after all, not only strangely thrilling in a way I could have never predicted, but also addictive. That night, I could envision something I’d never before contemplated: the possibility of getting sucked in even deeper. After all, I had a U.S. title and a speed cards record to defend, and I was sure I could break the minute barrier in cards if I only put in a bit more time. Not to mention historic dates: I could do so much better in historic dates! And there was the grand master standard I’d just missed. “ ’Grand Master of Memory’ would look awfully nice on a business card,” I joked to Gunther (it actually is on his business card). I could have filled a memory palace with the scenes I was imagining: the millennium system I’d develop, the horse blinders I’d buy, the hours of practice I’d invest, the jet-setting to national championships around the world. But even then, at the very moment I was being offered admission to the memory circuit’s sanctum sanctorum, I was sober enough to recognize that it was time for me to hang up my cleats. My experiment was over. The results were in. I told Gunther that I would miss it, but I didn’t see myself coming back next year.
“It’s too bad,” he said, “but I understand it. It would mean a lot more practice, and that’s time which you very likely can invest in a much better way.” He was right, I thought. I wondered why he’d never managed to have that realization about himself.
Ed got up off the couch and raised a toast to me, his star pupil. “Let’s go get a bagel,” he said, and we walked out the door. I have no memory of the rest of the night. I woke up the next afternoon with a large red circle on my cheek—the imprint of my names-and-faces bronze medal. I’d forgotten to take it off.
This book took a while. I’m grateful to everyone who supported me in its creation as readers of drafts, sources of expertise, proofreaders, and friends. There are more of you than I could possibly name. I am especially grateful to all of the mental athletes who spent so much time with me, generously sharing their knowledge and their lives.
This book benefited from two editors. Vanessa Mobley guided it through its initial stages. Eamon Dolan expertly saw it through to completion. I am grateful to Ann Godoff for her faith in me and to everyone at Penguin Press for their work on this book’s behalf. My literary agent, Elyse Cheney, is the best partner anyone could ask for. Lindsay Crouse was an extraordinary checker of hard-to-pin-down facts. Brendan Vaughan helped make my writing much sharper.
In the interests of explanatory expediency, I have moved some details, conversations, and scenes around chronologically, but these changes don’t materially affect the truth of this book. To the extent that memory records and other time-sensitive facts are not always up-to-date, that is because I have tried to tell this story from the perspective I had when originally experiencing it. In the three years it took me to write this book, much changed in the world. My girlfriend became my wife. The thirty-second barrier in speed cards fell, and fell again. The poem event was finally nixed from international competition. And sadly, EP and Kim Peek passed away. I feel profoundly lucky for the time I was able to spend with them.