Some fascinating articles and news reports about the art of memory

  • A good short overall presentation about the art of memory in the New York Times.
  • A fascinating scientific study that shows how complete beginners can spectacularly improve their performances by training the use of memory palaces. The study was described and discussed in, among other places, Scientific American, CNN, The Smithsonian and The Guardian. While the study in question involved 6 weeks of 20 minutes a day training, we have good reasons to believe that vast improvement can also be achieved in a much shorter period. In some cases, even with complete beginners, using memory techniques can lead to a sevenfold increase in recall (93% of 120 words recalled correctly by beginners using improvised stories, versus only 13% for the control group).
  • A very interesting lengthy video report shown on CNN. It talks about the study referenced above, about the effect training seems to have on a group of young high school students (improved ability to concentrate), and it shows world memory champion Alex Mullen memorizing a deck of cards in only 15 seconds. Here’s part 1, part 2 and part 3. I found the last 2 parts to be by far the most interesting.
  • “Eleven teams, mostly from world-leading neuroscience laboratories, took part in the challenge of designing the ultimate system for learning 80 Lithuanian words in an hour. Around 10,000 participants were funnelled through the competing methods in the finals, giving the results a level of statistical power that cognitive scientists can normally only dream of.” The winning technique (using what’s called a memory palace) is the same we use in competition to remember random words, numbers and cards. Article in The Guardian.
  • Once again in the New York Times, a long and fascinating article based on the book Moonwalking With Einstein, the book that helped so many of us discover the subject. If you want to go ahead and read the whole book, you should. It’s extremely interesting, instructive and well-written. You should know however that it’s not an instruction manual. If you want to read a book that will teach you how to use memory techniques, Remember It! by 4-time USA memory champion Nelson Dellis is a much better choice.
  • Memory palaces aren’t at all a recent invention. Once upon a time, they were taught in schools across Europe and used by an important percentage of the population. This article is a good overview of the history of the subject. Sadly, for many complicated reasons that we won’t get into, the art of memory was later largely pushed away either by puritans worried about the sinful nature of those vivid images and stories, by boring and inefficient methods of rote learning, by unfounded educational theories about the unimportance of memorization and of course by the fact that it’s now possible (though not always the best idea) to just note everything down on paper or to look it up on the  Internet.
  • Here’s a mindblowing not very well known fact: in all societies where writing down what you need and want to remember wasn’t an option, people have used all kinds of sophisticated memory techniques to accumulate encyclopedic levels of knowledge about nature and about a wide variety of subjects. The memorization feats of today’s “memory champions” probably wouldn’t seem that impressive to most elders of those societies. Australian writer Lynne Kelly’s research on indigenous memory techniques have been praised by pretty much every scholar who has taken a serious look at it. If you’re curious, I recommend that you start with this extract from one of her books. Also check out the extremely impressive list of what this amazing 68 years old women was able to memorize during the last few years, despite what she calls her “appallingly bad memory”.
  • Here’s an article published in the Globe and Mail about the Mongolian Intellectual Academy, a school in Mongolia (duh) where all students learn to use memory techniques along with all kinds of other impressive skills.
  • Here’s a fun and informative video report that shows how a complete beginner can use a memory palace to quickly the list of all 83 “best picture” Oscar-winning movies from 1928 until 2011.
  • Here’s an article in The Guardian that shows how one can use memory techniques and spaced repetition to learn a thousand foreign language words in a series of short sessions lasting no more than 22 hours in total.
  • And here’s a long list in French of various scientific studies related to the efficacy of memory techniques.