Friday, February 17, 2012

Memory Palaces

I have, on occasion, envied those who had one single childhood home, a single place within four wall that house all their memories. Some people, I realize, grow up in one place, then inherit it from their parents and raise their own children there. Many of my best friends' parents still live in the homes where I visited them, street addresses I know by heart, for which I'll never need GPS.

For my family, such as not the case. Throughout my childhood, my dad was a preacher, so we moved from one preacher's home--property of the church--to another whenever he changed jobs. Our first home, the one we still call "the little red house" had been theirs, built right next door to my grandparents and ours until I was nearly grown, but the next several--Oakland, Eastwood Drive, Alabama Street, Knud Drive (our one foray out of the state of Alabama) and Pearl Street--were perfect metaphors for the Christian life: This world is not my home; I'm just a'passin' through.

When I was a teenager, my parents decided they needed to build some equity and bought a house, the one I most closely connect to my teenage years, but by the time I was in college, they moved out to a farm house--then back to the previous house. When I married, they moved again, and again, and... Well, you get the point.

While other people have decades of hidden treasures in their attics, we have the boxes, but they move from attic to attic (or basement to basement). Some of the boxes, we realize too late, never make the move.

I finally have found the benefit to these moves--which in my married life I have mimicked as well. As I've been reading Joshua Foer's work Moonwalking with Einstein, a study of memory, I learn that one of the best tools for memory is a wide variety of familiar places in which to store memory images. He cites the story of Simonides, who was able to recreate the names of the people killed when a wall collapsed in a building right after he spoke--then exited, by connecting people's names or faces to their location within the room. That tool has been used for years since to help others store their memories in what are called "Memory Palaces."

Foer began investigating the phenomenon of memory after discovering that a group of individuals who considered themselves Mental Athletes (MAs) compete annually for national and international titles as Memory Champions. He discovered that contrary to what most people assume, good memories are made, not born. In fact, he agreed to work with one of the competitors for a year to prepare himself for competition.

Along the way, Foer researched and interviewed people with exceptional, remarkable memories, as well as those with the worst memories, such as the man who lost the part of his brain responsible for recalling memory to a brain-eating herpes simplex virus. As a result, he can have the same conversations over and over without realizing each time isn't the first time. This called to mind the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, the story of a Japanese math teacher whose current memories, as a result of a car accident, are reset every eighty-something minutes, leaving his expertise in the field of mathematics as sharp as ever.

One of the key strategies he learned, one his mentors said he might consider at first a party trick, involved building "memory palaces," places he knew well where he could store visually exaggerated and thus memorable images he wished to recall. He demonstrates with a long to-do list, which Foer places throughout his childhood home. (One of my friends who read the book earlier this year says she can still recall the entire list, using the same technique.)

In order to remember many different kinds of information, then, some must travel, gathering as many memory palaces as possible. While my friends still living in their childhood homes must look around for other memory storage options, I have a long way to go before I ever have to leave home--or homes.


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