The Ok Plateau
If you visited my office in the fall of 2005, you would have seen a Post-it note—one of my external memories—stuck to the wall above my computer monitor. Whenever my eyes strayed from the screen, I saw the words “Don’t Forget to Remember,” a gentle reminder that for the next several months until the U.S. Memory Championship, I needed to strive to replace my regular procrastination patterns with more productive mnemonic exercises. Instead of browsing the Web or walking around the block to cool my eyes, I’d pick up a list of random words and try to memorize it. Rather than take a magazine or book along with me on the subway, I’d whip out a page of random numbers. Did I understand, at the time, how weird I was becoming?
I started trying to use my memory in everyday life, even when I wasn’t practicing for the handful of arcane events that would be featured in the championship. Strolls around the neighborhood became an excuse to memorize license plates. I began to pay a creepy amount of attention to name tags. I memorized my shopping lists. I kept a calendar on paper, and also one in my mind. Whenever someone gave me a phone number, I installed it in a special memory palace.
Remembering numbers proved to be one of the real world applications of the memory palace that I relied on almost every day. I used a technique known as the “Major System,” invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace. The code works like this:
The number 32, for example, would translate into MN, 33 would be MM, and 34 would be MR. To make those consonants meaningful, you’re allowed to freely intersperse vowels. So the number 32 might turn into an image of a man, 33 could be your mom, and 34 might be the Russian space station Mir. Similarly, the number 86 might be a fish, 40 a rose, and 92 a pen. You might visualize 3,219 as a man (32) playing a tuba (19), or maybe a person from Manitoba (3,219). Likewise, 7,879 would translate to KFKP, which might turn into a single image of a coffee cup, or two images of a calf and a cub. The advantage of the Major System is that it’s straightforward, and you can begin using it right out of the box. (When I first learned it, I immediately memorized my credit card and bank account numbers.) But nobody wins any international memory competitions with the Major System.
When it comes to memorizing long strings of numbers, like a hundred thousand digits of pi or the career batting averages of every New York Yankee Hall of Famer, most mental athletes use a more complex technique that is known on the Worldwide Brain Club (the online forum for memory junkies, Rubik’s cubers, and mathletes) as “person-action-object,” or, simply, PAO. It traces its lineage directly back to the loopy combinatorial mnemonics of Giordano Bruno and Ramon Llull.
In the PAO system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object from the third—in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape. If the number were instead 79-34-13, the mental athlete might imagine the equally bizarre image of Superman crooning at a soccer ball. There’s nothing inherently Sinatraish about the number 34 or Beckhamesque about 13. Unlike the Major System, those associations are entirely arbitrary, and have to be learned in advance, which is to say it takes a lot of remembering just to be able to remember. There’s a big fixed cost in terms of time and effort to compete on the memory circuit. But what makes this system so potent is that it effectively generates a unique image for every number from 0 to 999,999. And because the algorithm necessarily generates unlikely scenes, PAO images tend, by their nature, to be memorable.
The sport of competitive memory is driven by an arms race of sorts. Each year someone—usually it’s a competitor who is temporarily underemployed or a student with an unstructured summer vacation—comes up with an ever more elaborate technique for remembering more stuff more quickly, forcing the rest of the field to play catch-up.
Ed had just spent the previous six months developing what he described as “the most elaborate mnemonic behemoth ever brought to bear at a memory championship.” His new system, which he referred to as “Millennium PAO,” represented an upgrade from the two-digit system used by most European competitors to a three-digit system consisting of a thousand different person-action-object images. It would allow him to convert every number from zero to 999,999,999 into a unique image that would hopefully be impossible to confuse with any other. “While before I had a little two-digit laser boat that could dart through numbers like a tuna on amphetamines, now I have a three-digit sixty-four-gun Man of War,” he boasted. “It is enormously powerful, yet potentially difficult to control.” If the system worked, he figured, it would advance the sport of competitive memory by a quantum leap.
Mental athletes memorize decks of playing cards in much the same way, using a PAO system in which each of the fifty-two cards is associated with its own person/action/object image. This allows any triplet of cards to be combined into a single image, and for a full deck to be condensed into just eighteen unique images (52 divided by 3 is 17, with one card left over).
With Ed’s help, I laboriously created my own PAO system, which involved dreaming up fifty-two separate person/action/object images. To be maximally memorable, one’s images have to appeal to one’s own sense of what is colorful and interesting. Which means that a mental athlete’s stock of PAO images is a pretty good guide to the gremlins that live in someone’s subconscious: in my case, 1980s and early 1990s TV icons; in Ben Pridmore’s case, cartoon characters; in Ed’s case, lingerie models and Depression-era English cricketers. The king of hearts, for me, was Michael Jackson moonwalking with a white glove. The king of clubs was John Goodman eating a hamburger, and the king of diamonds was Bill Clinton smoking a cigar. If I were to memorize the king of hearts, king of clubs, and king of diamonds in order, I would create an image of Michael Jackson eating a cigar. Before I could memorize any decks of cards, I first had to memorize those fifty-two images. No minor job.
But my PAO system pales in comparison to the system that Ben Pridmore uses for cards. In the fall of 2002, he quit the job he’d held for six and a half years as an assistant accountant at a meat factory in Lincolnshire, spent a week in Vegas counting cards, and then came back to England and spent the next six months watching cartoons, getting qualified to teach English as a second language, and developing an entirely new mnemonic nuclear arsenal. Instead of creating a single person-action-object image for each card in the deck, Ben spent dozens of hours dreaming up a unique image for every two-card combination. When he sees the queen of hearts followed by the ace of diamonds, that’s a unique image. When he sees the ace of diamonds followed by the queen of hearts, that’s a different unique image. That’s 52 times 52, or 2,704, possible two-card combinations for which Ben has an image pre-memorized. And like Ed, he places three images at each of his loci. That means he’s able to condense an entire pack of cards into just nine loci (52 divided by 6), and twenty-seven packs of cards—the most he’s ever been able to memorize in a single hour—into just 234 places.
It’s hard to say which is the more admirable component of this feat: Ben’s mental or manual dexterity. He has developed an ability to quickly thumb two cards at a time off the top of the deck, in the process spreading them just enough to reveal the suit and number in the corner of both. When he’s going at top speed, he looks at each pair of cards for less than a second.
Ben developed a similarly Byzantine system for memorizing binary digits, which enables him to convert any ten-digit-long string of ones and zeros into a unique image. That’s 210, or 1,024, images set aside for binaries. When he sees 1101001001, he immediately sees it as a single chunk, an image of a card game. When he sees 0111011010, he instantaneously conjures up an image of a cinema. In international memory competitions, mental athletes are given sheets of 1,200 binary digits, thirty to a row, forty rows to a page. Ben turns each row of thirty digits into a single image. The number 110110100000111011010001011010, for example, is a muscleman putting a fish in a tin. At the time, Ben held the world record for having learned 3,705 random ones and zeroes in half an hour.
Every mental athlete has a weakness, an Achilles heel. Ben’s is names and faces. His scores in the event are always near the bottom of the pack. “I don’t tend to look at people’s faces when I talk to them,” he told me. “In fact, I have no idea what lots of people I know really look like.” To get around this problem, he has been developing a new mnemonic system for the event that would assign numerical codes to eye color, skin color, hair color, hair length, nose, and mouth shape. He figures that if people’s faces could only be turned into a string of digits, they’d be a cinch to remember.
When I first set out to train my memory, the prospect of learning these elaborate techniques seemed preposterously daunting. But Anders Ericsson and I struck a deal. I would give him the meticulous records of all my training, which would be useful data for his research on expertise. In return Tres and Katy, his graduate students, would analyze that data in search of ways I could perform better. After the memory championship, I had promised to return to Tallahassee for a couple days of follow-up testing so they could get a journal article out of the whole enterprise.
Ericsson has studied the process of skill acquisition from dozens of different angles in almost as many different fields, and if there were any general secrets to becoming an expert, he was the person most likely to reveal them. What I already knew from talking with him extensively, and from reading almost every book and paper he’d written, was that in domain after domain, he’d found a common set of techniques that the most accomplished individuals tend to employ in the process of becoming an expert—general principles of expertise acquisition. Those principles would be my secret weapon.
Over the next several months, while I toiled away with PAO in my parents’ basement, Ericsson kept close tabs on my development. I kept him apprised of my evolving thoughts about the impending competition, which I noticed had gradually begun to shift from innocent curiosity to zealous competitiveness. When I’d get stuck, I’d call Ericsson up for advice, and he’d inevitably send me scurrying for some journal article that he promised would help me understand my shortcomings. At one point, a few months into my training, my memory stopped improving. No matter how much I practiced, I couldn’t memorize a deck of playing cards any faster. I was stuck in a rut, and I couldn’t figure out why. “My card times have hit a plateau,” I lamented to him.
“I would recommend you check out the literature on speed typing,” he replied.
When people first learn to use a keyboard, they improve very quickly from sloppy single-finger pecking to careful two-handed typing, until eventually the fingers move so effortlessly across the keys that the whole process becomes unconscious and the fingers seem to take on a mind of their own. At this point, most people’s typing skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it’s a strange phenomenon. After all, we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, and many people sit behind a keyboard for at least several hours a day in essence practicing their typing. Why don’t they just keep getting better and better?
In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.
We all reach OK plateaus in most things we do. We learn how to drive when we’re in our teens and then once we’re good enough to avoid tickets and major accidents, we get only incrementally better. My father has been playing golf for forty years, and he’s still—though it will hurt him to read this—a duffer. In four decades his handicap hasn’t fallen even a point. How come? He reached an OK plateau.
Psychologists used to think that OK plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could only improve at physical and mental activities up until he reached a certain wall, which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” According to this view, the best we can do is simply the best we can do.
But Ericsson and his fellow expert performance psychologists have found over and over again that with the right kind of concerted effort, that’s rarely the case. They believe that Galton’s wall often has much less to do with our innate limits than simply with what we consider an acceptable level of performance.
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.
When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance. My dad may consider putting into a tin cup in his basement a good form of practice, but unless he’s consciously challenging himself and monitoring his performance—reviewing, responding, rethinking, rejiggering—it’s never going to make him appreciably better. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing. One way to do that is to put yourself in the mind of someone far more competent at the task you’re trying to master, and try to figure out how that person works through problems. Benjamin Franklin was apparently an early practitioner of this technique. In his autobiography, he describes how he used to read essays by the great thinkers and try to reconstruct the author’s arguments according to Franklin’s own logic. He’d then open up the essay and compare his reconstruction to the original words to see how his own chain of thinking stacked up against the master’s. The best chess players follow a similar strategy. They will often spend several hours a day replaying the games of grand masters one move at a time, trying to understand the expert’s thinking at each step. Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he’s played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he’s spent sitting alone working through old games.
The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing—to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. With typing, it’s relatively easy to get past the OK plateau. Psychologists have discovered that the most efficient method is to force yourself to type faster than feels comfortable, and to allow yourself to make mistakes. In one noted experiment, typists were repeatedly flashed words 10 to 15 percent faster than their fingers were able to translate them onto the keyboard. At first they weren’t able to keep up, but over a period of days they figured out the obstacles that were slowing them down, and overcame them, and then continued to type at the faster speed. By bringing typing out of the autonomous stage and back under their conscious control, they had conquered the OK plateau.
Ericsson suggested I try the same thing with cards. He told me to find a metronome and to try to memorize a card every time it clicked. Once I figured out my limits, he instructed me to set the metronome 10 to 20 percent faster than that and keep trying at the quicker pace until I stopped making mistakes. Whenever I came across a card that was particularly troublesome, I was supposed to make a note of it, and see if I could figure out why it was giving me problems. It worked, and within a couple days I was off the OK plateau and my card times began falling again at a steady clip.
If they’re not practicing deliberately, even experts can see their skills backslide. Ericsson shared with me an incredible example of this. Even though you might be inclined to trust the advice of a silver-haired doctor over one fresh out of medical school, it’s been found that in a few fields of medicine, doctors’ skills don’t improve the longer they’ve been practicing. The diagnoses of professional mammographers, for example, have a tendency to get less and less accurate over the years. Why would that be?
For most mammographers, practicing medicine is not deliberate practice, according to Ericsson. It’s more like putting into a tin cup than working with a coach. That’s because mammographers usually only find out about the accuracy of their diagnoses weeks or months later, if at all, at which point they’ve probably forgotten the details of the case and can no longer learn from their successes and mistakes.
One field of medicine in which this is definitively not the case is surgery. Unlike mammographers, surgeons tend to get better with time. What makes surgeons different from mammographers, according to Ericsson, is that the outcome of most surgeries is usually immediately apparent—the patient either gets better or doesn’t—which means that surgeons are constantly receiving feedback on their performance. They’re always learning what works and what doesn’t, always getting better. This finding leads to a practical application of expertise theory: Ericsson suggests that mammographers regularly be asked to evaluate old cases for which the outcome is already known. That way they can get immediate feedback on their performance.
Through this kind of immediate feedback, experts discover new ways to perform ever better and push our collective OK plateaus ever higher. People have been swimming for as long as people have been getting neck-deep in water. You’d think that as a species, we’d have maxed out how fast we could swim long ago. And yet new swimming records are set every year. Humans keep getting faster and faster. “Olympic swimmers from early this century would not even qualify for swim teams at competitive high schools,” notes Ericsson. Likewise, “the gold medal performance at the original Olympic marathon is regularly attained by amateurs just to qualify as a participant in the Boston Marathon.” And the same is true not just of athletic pursuits, but in virtually every field. The thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon claimed that “nobody can obtain to proficiency in the science of mathematics by the method hitherto known unless he devotes to its study thirty or forty years.” Today, the entire body of mathematics known to Bacon is now acquired by your average high school junior.
There’s no reason to think that the most talented athletes alive today possess that much more innate talent than the most talented athletes of the past. And there’s also no reason to believe that improvements in running shoes or swimwear—while certainly of some significance—could be responsible for the totality of these dramatic improvements. What’s changed is the amount and quality of training that athletes must endure to achieve world-class status. The same is true not just of running and swimming, but of javelin throwing, ice skating, and every other athletic pursuit. There is not a single sport in which records don’t regularly fall. If there are plateaus out there, collectively we have not reached them yet.
How is it that we continue to surpass ourselves? Part of Ericsson’s answer is that the barriers we collectively set are as much psychological as innate. Once a benchmark is deemed breakable, it usually doesn’t take long before someone breaks it. For a long time, people thought that no one would ever run a mile in under four minutes. It was considered an immovable barrier, like the speed of light. When Roger Bannister, a twenty-year-old British medical student, finally broke the four-minute mile in 1954, his accomplishment was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world and hailed as one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. But the barrier turned out to be more like a floodgate. It took only six weeks before an Australian named John Landy ran the mile a second and a half faster than Bannister, and within a few years four-minute miles were commonplace. Today, all professional middle-distance runners are expected to clock four-minute miles and the world record has fallen to 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds. At the World Memory Championship, at least half the existing world records fall each year.
Instead of thinking of enhancing my memory as analogous to stretching my height or improving my vision or tweaking some other fundamental attribute of my body, Ericsson encouraged me to think of it more like improving a skill—more like learning to play an instrument.
We usually think about our memory as a single, monolithic thing. It’s not. Memory is more like a collection of independent modules and systems, each relying on its own networks of neurons. Some people have good memories for numbers but are always forgetting words; some people remember names but not to-do lists. SF, Ericsson’s work-study undergraduate who expanded his digit span tenfold, had not increased some generalized memory capacity. Rather, he’d simply become an expert at digit memorization. When he tried to memorize lists of random consonants, he could still only remember about seven of them.
This, more than anything, is what differentiates the top memorizers from the second tier: They approach memorization like a science. They develop hypotheses about their limitations; they conduct experiments and track data. “It’s like you’re developing a piece of technology, or working on a scientific theory,” the two-time world champ Andi Bell once told me. “You have to analyze what you’re doing.”
If I would have any chance at catapulting myself to the top tier of the competitive memorization circuit, my practice would have to be focused and deliberate. That meant I needed to collect data and analyze it for feedback. And that meant this whole operation was about to get ratcheted up.
I set up a spreadsheet on my laptop to keep track of how long I was practicing and of any difficulties I was having along the way. I made graphs of everything, and tracked the steady upticks in my scores in a journal:
August 19: Did 28 cards in 2:57.
August 20: Did 28 cards in 2:39. Solid time.
August 24: Did 38 cards in 4:40. Not so good.
September 8: Sitting in a Starbucks procrastinating instead of working on an overdue article. Memorized 46 digits in five minutes ... Pathetic. Then did 48 cards in 3:32. Decided finally to change my images for the fours. Goodbye female actresses, hello mental athletes. Clubs = Ed Cooke, diamonds = Gunther Karsten, hearts = Ben Pridmore, spades = me.
October 2: Did 70 random words in fifteen minutes. Not good! Lost points because I confused the words “grow” with “growth” and “bicycle” with “bike.” From now on, when a word has multiple close variations, make a careful mental note in palace next to the confusing image!
October 16: Just did 87 random words. I’m doing too much eyeing of the clock and glancing around the room instead of memorizing. I’m losing time. Concentrate man, concentrate!
Attention, of course, is a prerequisite to remembering. Generally when we forget the name of a new acquaintance, it’s because we’re too busy thinking about what we’re going to say next, instead of paying attention. Part of the reason techniques like visual imagery and the memory palace work so well is that they enforce a degree of attention and mindfulness that is normally lacking. You can’t create an image of a word, a number, or a person’s name without dwelling on it. And you can’t dwell on something without making it more memorable. The problem I was running into in my training was that I was simply getting bored by it, and allowing my mind’s eye to wander. No matter how crude, colorful, and explicit the images one paints in one’s memory palaces, one can only look at pages of random numbers for so long before beginning to wonder if there isn’t something more interesting going on in another room. Like the sound of putting.
Ed, who had taken to referring to me as “son,” “young man,” and “Herr Foer,” insisted that the cure for my distractibility lay in an equipment upgrade. All serious mnemonists wear earmuffs. A few of the most serious competitors wear blinders to constrict their field of view and shut out peripheral distractions. “I find them ridiculous, but in your case, they may be a sound investment,” said Ed on one of our regular twice-weekly phone check-ins. That afternoon, I went out to the hardware store and bought a pair of industrial-grade earmuffs and a pair of plastic laboratory safety goggles. I spray-painted them black and then drilled a small eyehole through each lens. Henceforth I would always wear them to practice.
It was easy enough to explain to people that I was living with my parents to save a few bucks while I cut my teeth as a writer. But what I was doing in their basement, with pages of random numbers taped to the walls and old high school yearbooks (purchased at flea markets) cracked open on the floor, was, if not downright shameful, at least something to lie about.
When my father would visit me in the basement to ask if I’d like to putt with him for a few minutes, I’d quickly hide the page of numbers I was memorizing and pretend to be diligently at work on something else, like an article that some publication might compensate me for with a check that might in turn be handed over to a landlord. Sometimes I’d take off my earmuffs and memory goggles and turn around to discover that my father had been standing in the doorway, just watching me.
If Ericsson was my professor, Ed had taken on the role of yogi and manager. He set a schedule for me for the next four months, with benchmarks I was supposed to meet along the way, and a strict regimen of half an hour of practice each morning, plus two five-minute booster sessions in the afternoon. A computer program tested me and kept detailed records of my mistakes, so that we could analyze them later. I e-mailed my times to Ed every few days, and he would write back with suggestions about how I could improve.
Eventually, I decided I needed to go back to the Mill Farm to get some more face time with my coach. I scheduled my return trip to England to coincide with Ed’s twenty-fifth birthday party, an epic affair that he had been talking up since I had first visited England for the World Memory Championship.
Ed’s party was held in the Milf’s old stone barn, which Ed had spent the better part of a week converting into an experimental vessel for his philosophy of parties. “I’m trying to find a framework for manipulating conversation, space, movement, mood, and expectation so that I can see how they influence one another,” he told me. “In order to track all these parameters, I treat people not as volitional entities but as automata—particles really—which bounce around the party. And as host of the party, I take seriously my responsibility of bouncing them around in the best possible manner.”
Glittery textiles hung from the rafters to the floor, dividing the barn into a collection of small rooms. The only way in or out was through a network of tunnels, which could be navigated only by slithering on one’s belly. The space under the grand piano was turned into a fort, and a circle was formed around the fireplace out of a collection of raggedy couches that had been stacked on top of tables.
“The people who actually get through the tunnel networks have been through an adventure. They have had to struggle a tiny bit, and therefore upon arrival, they feel a sense of gratitude, relief, and accomplishment, and are committed to the project of having a good experience, with the most possible vigor and imagination. I think your memory training is extremely similar to this. Although it sounds silly to say ’No pain, no gain,’ it’s true. One has to hurt, to go through a period of stress, a period of self-doubt, a period of confusion. And then out of that mess can flow the richest tapestries.”
I crawled behind him through a ten-foot-long pitch-black tunnel and emerged into a room filled neck-deep with balloons. Each room, he explained, was supposed to function like a chamber of a memory palace. His party was designed to be maximally memorable.
“Too often one is just left in a haze about what happened at a party because it’s a single, undifferentiated space,” he said. “One of the advantages of this kind of setup is that the experiences in each room get kept in each room, and are isolated from other experiences. One leaves the party with a beautiful repertoire of events, upon which one can dwell during old and middle age.”
In order to facilitate social interaction, Ed felt it was critical that partygoers not be able to recognize one another. Ben Pridmore, who had taken a four-hour train ride down from Derby, wore a black cape and a terrifying mask of a mohawked man-eater he called Grunch. Lukas Amsüss (recovered from his fire-breathing fiasco), who flew in from Vienna just for the party, arrived wearing a nineteenth-century Austrian military uniform with a sash and medals. One of Ed’s old friends from Oxford wore a full-body tiger suit. Another showed up in blackface and dreadlocks. Ed wore a curly wig, a dress, pantyhose, and a generously apportioned bra. In recognition of my being the only Yank at the party, I had my face painted like Captain America.
The highlight of the evening was the card-off. Shortly before midnight, Ed gathered his fifty or so guests in the basement of the barn and announced that in honor of his quarter-century of existence, two of the greatest card memorizers of all time were going to go head-to-head in competition. Ben, still wearing his black cape but no longer his Grunch mask, perched on a beanbag at one end of a long table littered with empty plastic sangria cups and the skeletal remains of an entire lamb that had been spit-roasted over a backyard bonfire. Lukas sat down at the other end of the table in his Austrian military uniform.
“First, I’d like to give the assembled here a few details about these two individuals’ capacities to remember packs of cards,” Ed announced. “Lukas was one of the first people in the world to break the forty-second barrier for a pack of cards. For a long time in the memory community, which comprises eleven people, this was regarded as the four-minute mile. He busted that mark and busted it again, and was once upon a time the world champion in speed cards. He is also one of the founding members of a distinguished society of memorizers known as the KL7. Of course, his terrific memory would be much better if he weren’t perennially drunk,” Ed said hyperbolically. Lukas lifted his plastic cup and nodded it in Ed’s direction. “You see, Lukas introduced me to an amusing and useful machine that he built with his engineering friends in Vienna, which allows you to drink four glasses of beer in less than three seconds. It’s got a valve mechanism they had to purchase off an aerospace company. Unfortunately, Lukas has used it a bit too much recently. He hasn’t memorized a deck of cards in almost a year. However, the last time he did it, he recorded a time of 35.1 seconds.”
Ed turned to Ben. “Pridmore here holds the current world record in cards, at 31.03 seconds. And he’s British.” This elicited a round of rowdy cheers from the guests. “Ben has also learned twenty-seven packs of cards in an hour—which is just, frankly, unnecessary.”
Ben unfolded his arms and spoke up. “Lukas and I have been talking, and we’ve been thinking that since Ed is ranked seventeenth in the world—”
“You mock me,” Ed protested. He didn’t know that a handful of young Germans had recently passed him in the international rankings.
“We’ve decided we will not compete unless he can tell us the name of every person in this room.”
There were more rowdy cheers, which Ed tried to quiet. He made it about a quarter of the way around the room before getting stumped by a friend of a friend, whom he claimed never to have met. He asked for silence, invited two guests to shuffle the packs of cards, and then handed them to Lukas and Ben. A stopwatch was set. They each had a minute.
Barely a half dozen cards were flipped over before it became clear that Lukas, who had been keeping his head upright only with concerted vigilance, was in no condition to use his higher cognitive faculties. He laid the deck back down on the table and sheepishly announced, “At least I am still ahead of Ed in the international rankings.”
Ed forcefully nudged Lukas out of the way and took his seat. “On the occasion of my twenty-fifth birthday, it gives me great pleasure to say that one of the competitors in my showcase event is too drunk to compete and I am going to have to take over!” The decks were reshuffled and the stopwatch reset. “Now, Pridmore, would you calm down, please?”
After a minute of hushed memorization, Ben and Ed took turns announcing cards from memory while a self-appointed judge checked to see that they were correct.
Ed: “Jack of clubs.” Cheers.
Ben: “Two of diamonds.” Boos.
Ed: “Nine of clubs.” Cheers.
Ben: “Four of spades.” Boos.
Ed: “Five of spades.” Cheers.
Ben: “Ace of spades.” Boos.
About forty cards into the deck, Ben shook his head and put his hands down on the table. “That’s enough for me.”
Ed leaped up from his seat, his breasts slapping his chin. “I knew Ben Pridmore would go too fast! I knew it! He crashes and burns, that guy!”
“How many times have you won the world championship?” Ben responded, with more bite in his voice than I’d ever heard before.
“Shall we clarify our record in one-on-one competition, Ben?”
“You realize losing was my birthday present to you.”
As Ed circled the room exchanging high fives and embracing his female guests, Ben slunk back into his bean bag and petted his cape. One of Ed’s inebriated Oxford chums, suitably impressed with Ben’s performance in spite of his loss, came up to Ben and handed him a short stack of credit cards. He told Ben that if he could memorize them he was welcome to use them.
After the card-off, the party migrated outside to a bonfire that had been built in the clearing, where a drunken tribal hora lasted into the morning. When I finally went to sleep just before sunrise, Ed and Ben were still sitting around the kitchen table, reeling off the most entertainingly bizarre binary number combinations they could think of.
After sleeping off our hangovers, Ed and I spent the next afternoon huddled in training around the kitchen table. I’d come to him with three particular problems I needed his help with, the most pressing of which was that I was consistently mixing up my images. When you’re memorizing a deck of cards, there isn’t enough time to form images with all the detail and richness that the Ad Herrennium calls for. You’re moving so fast that usually you can only get the equivalent of a passing glance. In fact, more than anything else, the art of memory is learning how little of an image you need to see to make it memorable. It was only by analyzing the data I was keeping that I realized that I’d been consistently confusing the seven of diamonds—Lance Armstrong riding his bicycle—with the seven of spades—a jockey riding a racehorse. Something about the verb “riding” in those two very different contexts was causing me cognitive hiccups.
I asked Ed what I was supposed to do about that. “Don’t try to see the whole image,” he said. “You don’t need to. Just focus on one salient element of whatever it is you’re trying to visualize. If it’s your girlfriend, make sure that before all else, you see her smile. Practice studying the whiteness of her teeth, the way her lips crease. The other details will make her more memorable, but the smile will be the key. Sometimes a stab of blue that smells of oysters might be all the recall you get from some particular image, but if you know your system well, you should be able to translate that back again. Often, when you’re really gunning for it, the only traces left by a speedily sighted pack of cards will be a series of emotions with no visual content whatsoever. Your other option is to change the images, so they’re not so similar—not so mundane.”
I closed my eyes and tried to visualize Lance Armstrong pedaling up a steep hill. I made a special point of focusing on the way his reflective sunglasses turned blue and green as they moved through sunlight. Then I thought about the jockey and decided he would be much more distinct as a pony-riding midget with a sombrero. That little adjustment probably shaved two seconds off my time.
“Good stuff with the cards,” Ed said when I showed my latest spreadsheet. “It’s just a matter of five or so more hours of practice before the images are totally automatic. I’ve no doubt the American record in speed cards will be child’s play. I weep for joy!”
Of course, for all the reanalysis and rejiggering that makes deliberate practice deliberate, Ed warned me that there was always a risk of overthinking things in memory sport, since every change to your mnemonic system leaves behind a trace that can come back to haunt you in competition. And if there’s one thing a mental athlete wants desperately to avoid, it’s for a single card or number to trigger multiple images on game day.
Another problem I’d discovered in my practice sessions was that my card images were fading too quickly. By the time I’d get to the end of a deck or string of numbers, the images from the beginning had become faint ghosts. I mentioned this to Ed.
“Well, you’ve got to get to know your images better,” was his response. “Starting tonight, take a suit at a time and really spend meditative time with each character. Ask yourself what they look, feel, smell, taste, and sound like; how they walk; the cut of their clothes; their social attitude; their sexual preferences; their propensity to gratuitous violence. After having got this kind of feel for them, try to let it all happen at once—feel the full fat force of their physical and social characteristics all at once in imaginative broadband, and then imagine them going about your house doing everyday things, so you get used to them being so rich and dense even in normal situations. That way, when they do come up in a packet of cards, they should always be offering up some salient characteristic that will stick to their surroundings.”
I needed Ed’s help with one other problem. Following the recommendations of Peter of Ravenna and the Ad Herennium, my collection of PAO images included a handful of titillating acts that are still illegal in a few Southern states, and a handful of others that probably ought to be. And since memorizing a deck of cards with the PAO system requires recombining prememorized images to create novel memorable images, it invariably meant inserting family members into scenes so raunchy I feared I was upgrading my memory at the expense of tormenting my subconscious. The indecent acts my own grandmother has had to commit in the service of my remembering the eight of hearts are truly unspeakable (if not, as I might have previously guessed, unimaginable).
I explained my predicament to Ed. He knew it well. “I eventually had to excise my mother from my deck,” he said. “I recommend you do the same.”
Ed was a stern coach, who berated me for the “lackadaisical character” of my training. If I went more than a few days without sending him my latest times, or admitted that I was not, in fact, putting in a half an hour a day as he’d commanded, I would receive a caustic reprimand via e-mail.
“You’ve got to step up your training because it’s inevitably the case that your performance will drop in the tournament itself,” he warned. “You might have the perfect sporting mentality and actually raise your score, but you’ve got to work on the assumption that you’re going to do better in practice than you’ll do in the tournament.”
In my own defense, “lackadaisical” wasn’t quite the word I’d have chosen. Now that I had put the OK plateau behind me, my scores were improving on an almost daily basis. The sheets of random numbers that I’d memorized were piling up in the drawer of my desk. The dog-eared pages of verse I’d learned by heart were accumulating in my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. I was beginning to suspect that if I kept improving at the current pace, I might actually have a chance of doing well in the competition.
Ed sent me a quote from the venerable martial artist Bruce Lee, which he hoped would serve as inspiration: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” I copied that thought onto a Post-it note and stuck it on my wall. Then I tore it down and memorized it.