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Memory Palaces and Other Secrets of Mental Athletes

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CathieOur AWMI team recently read the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Every quarter, a team member selects a book that is relevant to our work, for us to read and discuss. Mary Kate chose this book due to the vast amounts of information, both technical and client-related, that we process each day.  While we knew this was not a “how to” manual, we were all still excited to learn the mnemonics employed by memory athletes. Joshua Foer’s journey to the USA Memory Championships (yes, that’s a real thing) was engaging because anyone with an average memory could relate. We all enjoyed the story and each took away something different that we can apply to our work and our everyday lives.

Kim liked the explanation of the magical number 7, plus or minus 2. This is our capacity for processing (remembering) information. We can only think about roughly 7 things at the same time. Foer then defines chunking as a way to store information directly in long-term memory by decreasing the number of items you have to remember. You increase the size of the item, like the way we remember phone numbers. It makes sense that we accumulate long-term memories by integrating them into chronological order, which relates back to our life experiences. The denser the memories, the denser the experience. We were especially interested in the discussion of why we remember stuff.  I liked the quote, “Monotony collapses time, novelty unfolds it.” Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable (less novel). My takeaway is that we should all get out of our comfort zone and always be adventurous.

I enjoyed his stories on experts. From chicken sexers (you’ll have to read the book) to master chess players, experts make decisions based on perceptions. Experts perceive a solution by using information from long-term memory – they interpret based on massive knowledge gained over time. To be a better chess player, study the moves of the masters from past games and play a lot of games. The goal of memory training should be to develop the capacity to move from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas. Not just retention, but composition. What I liked about the experts was their skills weren’t magic nor some trick; they grew from the tried and true method of years of dedication and experience.

After a review of mnemonics and some interesting history, we learned about the tool that helped Foer win the USA Memory Championships – the memory palace. A memory palace enables people to memorize and retrieve vast amounts of information. The memory palace is an imagined space that allows you to mentally arrange your visual images. Foer teaches us that our brains are better at visual and spatial imagery than numbers or words. You can build thousands of memory palaces each to hold a different set of memories. You can also sweep out your memory palace and start over. We each created our own memory palace and discovered it does take a bit of time to build and maintain. As a result, we weren’t convinced of the practical application, but we still thought it was interesting and a fun exercise.

We liked the chapter on “The OK Plateau” which also relates to expertise. There are stages to acquiring a new skill and the third stage is the autonomous stage, also known as the OK Plateau or the Galton Wall, where your brain decides that you are adept enough to go on autopilot. The idea that we stop learning at an acceptable level of performance has nothing to do with our innate ability – we really can continue to get better. We do that through deliberate practice – focus on our technique, stay goal-oriented, and get constant and immediate feedback. The barriers we set are as much psychological as innate.

We had an interesting discussion about external memory aids and the ancient philosophers who felt these aids, such as the written word, would be the end of remembering.  They opined that writing it down allows forgetfulness. We all know the story of modern day Gordon Bell, the Microsoft engineer doing life logging, basically capturing absolutely everything. We had mixed opinions on the utility of it.

Some other fun takeaways: I never knew the voice inside our head has a name – the phonological loop, also we are too left-brain dominant (especially me), which negatively impacts our natural ability to remember things.

I liked Foer’s summary at the end of the book: More than memorizing, learn to be mindful and pay attention to the world around us. Remembering can only happen if we decide to take notice. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture. Do not merely pass through the world, but make an effort to capture it. In trying to capture, we can appreciate it.

Cathie Straub, CPA, CFP®
Director, APCM Wealth Management for Individuals

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