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The Bookshelf: Memory Champ Joshua Foer

Article
Date
Apr 11, 2013
Location
New Haven, Connecticut, USA

How do you train your memory? Here's a Goodreads list for the neuro-curious featuring books on the science, history and culture of memory. __

A few years ago, I attended a strange contest called the United States Memory Championship as a science journalist. I was expecting, I guess, to cover the Super Bowl of savants. Instead, what I found was a group of more or less normal people who had trained their memories using a set of ancient techniques. Even though the competitors all claimed to have just average natural memories, they were able to perform utterly miraculous feats--like memorizing hundreds of random numbers after looking at them just once, and entire shuffled packs of playing cards in under two minutes.

I ended up spending the next year both training my memory and investigating it. I wanted to see if those ancient techniques really worked. A year later, I came back to the same USA Memory Championship I had covered, and entered it--sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism. But my experiment went haywire, and I ended up becoming the United States Memory Champion.

I wrote about my journey, and the incredible things I learned about human memory along the way, in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

In research human memory, I had the opportunity to read dozens of wonderful books. Here are five favorites that I can recommend:

Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past by Daniel L. Schacter
When I was first dipping my toe into the vast subject of memory, this book was enormously helpful to me. Written nearly 15 years ago by Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory is still the best general overview of the science of memory for a popular audience.

Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past by Douwe Draiisma
Ever wondered why life seems to fly by as we age? Or why we can't remember anything that happened before the age of three? Or what causes deja vu? Each of those mysteries propels a chapter in this marvelous, poignant collection of essays by a Dutch historian of psychology.

The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory by A.R. Luria
This short book, published in 1968, is a classic. For three decades, the Russian neuropsychologist Luria studied a journalist called "S," who could supposedly remember everything. You might think that having a vacuum cleaner memory would be a huge advantage in life, but it was more of a burden than a blessing for S. He was unable to make that crucial distinction between things that were worth remembering and things that weren't.

Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve It by Kenneth Higbee
If you want to try training your memory like I did, this is the first book I'd send you to for some practical advice. Written by a BYU psychology professor, Your Memory is not only filled with useful tricks, but also explains how and why they work.

The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture by Mary Carruthers
If you're the type to go in for a really well-written scholarly book (and, granted, that's not everyone), this is one that will surprise the heck out of you. It's about the central role that memory techniques played in medieval culture. These days, we use the word "genius" to describe our most creative innovators, but during the middle ages, the term was reserved for people with the best memories. How times have changed! __

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