The Man Who Remembered Too Much
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.”
“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?”
“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?”