A year ago, freelance writer Joshua Foer, 22, covered and wrote about the U.S. Memory Championships for the online magazine Slate. Suitably impressed with these "mental athletes," as memory wizards are sometimes called, he began work on a book about their techniques and the science of memory. And Mr. Foer became so fascinated that he entered this year's competition.
A Yale graduate in evolutionary biology, Joshua Foer is plenty bright. But he swears he has only an average memory. "I'm no savant," he says. He insists he entered the national contest in New York in early March merely to experience and write about it from the inside. And Mr. Foer says no one was more surprised than he when he won the pressure-packed competition. With the title came two tickets to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he will represent the United States in the World Memory Championships in August.
"I have access to 2,500-year-old mnemonic techniques," Mr. Foer says. "They're the same techniques that were used by the Greeks, by the Romans, by medieval scholars. And it's actually those techniques that allowed me to do what I was able to do in the championships. Once you've learned these techniques, your ability to memorize things just improves dramatically, in the snap of a finger."
One of the world's greatest memorizers, Englishman Ed Cook, taught Joshua Foer mnemonics, the creation of unique codes and mental images to help one remember useless information like random numbers.
Mr. Foer says the concept traces to the 5th century B.C. and the Greek poet Simonides. "What he had discovered is that our brains are really good at remembering things that are visual and spatial. And from this comes the concept of 'the memory palace' -- building elaborate architectural spaces in your mind, and populating them with whatever it is you're trying to remember."
At the memory competition, contestants were instructed to riffle through a shuffled deck of cards and then recall their exact order. Mr. Foer did so well that his time of 1 minute, 40 seconds from the moment he looked at the first card until he successfully listed them all was an American record.
How did he do it?
In his mind's eye, he says, "I take a walk through my home. And I put the first card, which translates into an image of, say [former U.S. president] Bill Clinton. And I see Bill Clinton at the front door of my house. And then I walk into my house. And right behind the front door, I see the second card. Let's say it's the Queen of Diamonds, and it translates to a horse. Then I'll see that horse right inside my house. And I walk to the right, and there's a bathroom to the right, and I put another image there. And then I walk into the kitchen, and there's another image there. And as you deposit these images along the route, they stick, 'cause your brain is actually pretty good at remembering this sort of thing. And when it comes time to recall, you just walk through your house again, and you see the images in the places where you put them."
Often, Joshua Foer says, the more absurd the image the better. "For example, the King of Hearts is [singer] Michael Jackson 'moonwalking' with a white glove. You start enjoying creating these crazy images in your head -- [the comic book hero] The Incredible Hulk on a treadmill with big earrings. Frankly, that's the essence of the competition. Whoever can create the most absurd images will create the images that are the most memorable, and they will win."
Joshua Foer calls such exercises the kind of "cute parlor trick" that has made him a hit at parties, but that can also have practical value. There's a teacher in the South Bronx section of New York City at an inner-city high school, he notes, "whose students compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. In school, they use these the same techniques to literally memorize every important concept in their U.S. history textbook. So it's not surprising that these students all 'aced' [scored high] on the Regents' [college aptitude] exam. So it's incredibly useful."
Other challenges at the National Memory Championships included memorizing a previously unpublished poem, as well as 100 names and faces from photographs. At one point, five people walked onstage and began rattling off assorted details of their lives. Joshua Foer remembers it well. Out spilled "the name of their cat, where they were born, their birthday, their telephone number. And I said, 'Oh, man, the system I had prepared is just not going to work. I have to actually listen to these people and try as hard as I can to remember what they're telling me. I completely threw out the system I'd been preparing and training with. It's hard to listen to somebody and spit back their phone number, for example. It's almost impossible. So I didn't do as well on that event as I would have liked."
Although Joshua Foer competed in the U.S. Memory Championships almost as a lark, now that he's won he's a part of a subculture of memory buffs -- the "memory circuit," as he calls it. "I think this may be like winning an Academy Award. For the rest of my life, I'm going to be that guy who won the U.S. Memory Championships. Hopefully it will just be a curious footnote."
And the worst part of his newfound fame?
"Well, people are really interested in seeing you do your tricks. It's like, 'Bring the monkey out on stage, and let's watch him memorize a deck of cards,'" he says. "That's fine. I'm happy to do it. But I would hope that people would realize that there's more to me, and more to the story, than that."
Joshua Foer will have lots of opportunities to show off his mental gymnastics in the months between now and August, when he and a guest head for . . . where was it again? . . . Malaysia! and the World Memory Championships.