I am burdened by my imperfect memory more frequently than polite company will allow me to admit. Often I imagine taking out my vengeance on myself with a voodoo doll because I am so frustrated by my inability to remember important dates or histories or even names from a book I just finished reading. I heard about Josh Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein from a friend and thought that he might have taken pity on my poor memory. Was he really telling me that my imperfect memory needed help? Or, was he just passing on his recommendation for a good read. Really, I cannot tell you which he was going for. I just can’t remember.
Memory puns aside, Foer’s book is a fascinating read and for more than the obvious memory tricks and tales the book recounts. For me, the take away from Foer’s book was encapsulated in the message it gave about the untapped potential of our minds. Writes Foer in a follow-up interview to the book, “there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” If you are like me, you think you possess an intelligence that is limited by your ability to remember and learn. But, if you take the lessons of Foer’s book to heart, you will take the words as impetus to start to learning something brand new.
The art of memory is described as an ancient art beginning with the famous Greek poet Simonides. The tale goes that in the 5th Century B.C., Simonides was able to remember the exact seating arrangement at a vast banquet after the hall had crumbled and all occupants were sadly killed. Simonides had created a memory palace of the seating arrangement. The memory palace (known as method of loci in Latin) relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorial content. Per Foer, anyone can create a memory palace similar to Simonides. Each person’s palace is different as it is constructed based on personal memories and associations.
Yet where is the link between creating a memory palace and training your brain to learn something new? While creating elaborate memories might be an interesting bar trick, how do these memories mesh into creating the logic and thinking processes needed to learn a difficult new skill? If I put this onus on myself, I would say it would be really difficult or impossible for me to learn to become an effective computer programmer. Yet my programming friend Andrew who went to MIT and has been a programmer for over 20 years wrote to me that “ there are two steps to writing a program: First, in the abstract, think about the approach that you want to take to produce the desired result. Second, figure out how to express that in the language and environment you’re using. Decades of experience (and one class at MIT: 6.001) have taught me how to think about problems. And every few years I learn a new language for expressing my answers.”
Foer supports Andrew’s description when he explains how memory works. Writes Foer: “Mastering a specific field breeds a better memory for the details of that field.”
Yet I wonder if there is not some greater purpose behind pushing our brains to constantly achieve a new task. While famed psychologist and writer William James’ theory that we only use 10% of our brain at any time is considered a falsehood by today’s psychologist and scientists, it does seem true that we often do not push ourselves and test our limits. Popular blogger and author Whitney Johnson has written extensively about the benefits of pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones. She describes the safety of the harbor as the comfort we seek. But in the harbor, we do not push ourselves and we do not excel. Only when we are ships out in the water do we go far. Only when we go out of the harbor do we take our dreams and make them into actions.
So going out into the harbor is not easy. Our stay out on the water might be long and dangerous. Like Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey , we will encounter suitors and trouble but we will also encounter adventure. Perhaps more than adventure is the personal growth we achieve by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Only by acting outside of this comfort zone do we achieve success (maybe) and personal growth (definitely). For Mr. Foer, the adventure of training his memory to an incredible level pushed him well beyond the normal beat of a reporter. In the process, he wrote a great book that has brought his career to a new level and gained him much recognition.
So, as I think about my next steps, I need to start getting busy with my plans to learn computer programming. I need to get a bit uncomfortable. Just give me a few minutes to get out of my EZ chair.