Memoria rerum

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Books, 2011

About a week ago, I posted a commentary on the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which I pointed out the importance of reading as associated with learning. I included a particular anecdote involving one of my former students who wondered how “reading” was my answer to how I remembered things. If Moonwalking has demonstrated anything to me, it at least includes the reality that there is something more complex at work in all human memories, and therefore, certainly within mine as well.

Foer begins his exploration of human memory with a famous Greek tragedy – not a play, but an actual event in which a fifth-century banquet hall collapsed and sole survivor Simonides reconstructed the scene in his mind in order to help the grieving relatives identify mortal remains. It was at this moment, intones Foer, that the “art of memory was born” (1,2).

The text is, essentially, a mixture of autobiography (Foer is recounting, bit by bit, his entry into the USA Memory Championship), a bit of neuroscience, accounts of how memory works, or doesn’t, in everyday people, and strategies on how to improve ones memory. There is a personal, at times breezy style to the narrative, and for some readers, the tendency to include quite a few stories and memories, might not sit well. Historians will probably find the method of citation at the end of the book a bit unwieldy and unsatisfying in some ways. These critiques aside, I found myself compelled to read on in Foer’s “memory book,” as I have always wondered for both myself and my students, what makes one person’s memory better than another? Why can some people not remember twenty seconds ago, while others can reconstruct minute details of those twenty seconds?

A key point that is revealed relatively early in the book is one that I have thought about before but not always emphasized – “we don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context” (65). This is a vital point in teaching that I picked up on a number of years ago. My students in AP history courses took the actual AP exam in a different room than the one in which they were taught. For that matter, the same was true of final and mid term exams for all of my students. So, I began conducting review sessions only in those rooms that would be used for examinations. This served the purpose of both reminding students where the exam was to be held, along with contextualizing the material.

Mental imaging is another key element in Foer’s exploration of memory. Because our primitive brains needed to know more about visual material (what to eat or not, routes to avoid dangers, etc) this remains one of the brain’s strongest ways of remembering. What Foer’s coach emphasizes is that you need to “take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for” (90,91). For teachers, this could be an important technique to utilize. Whether examining the periodic table, basic algebraic equations, or historical chronology, mnemonic techniques can be used to learn anything.

Foer’s coach sent him backwards in time to better understand Rhetorica ad Herennium, a Latin text that discusses the techniques used by Simonides. Scholars were taught both content and methodology when given tasks of remembering and learning (94,95). The method part is, I would argue, sorely lacking in some cases. Students are expected to remember, but teachers have not necessarily taught them how to do it. There is no doubt that I am guilty of this failure in teaching – I have long accepted that memory is there or it isn’t for some students. Having completed Foer’s book, I am convinced that with some instructional time devoted to memory, (as well as how to read), students can make improvements. In a history course, such time devoted to strategies would be well worth the investment.

The essential technique, expounded on in the text for about half of the book, is to create a “memory palace.” Working on the visual strategy, the plan is to take a place you know very well and place images there that represent what you are trying to remember. For me, this exercise called to mind how I “see” directions. For lack of a better descriptor, it is as if I have a small locator map hovering in my head and possible routes to my destination light up, not unlike the trails of the bikes from Tron. Foer’s coach points out that people are very good at learning spaces and Foer mentions how some individuals use routing to create the “memory palace” (96,97). These descriptions resonated with me and how my own brain processes certain information.

Another highlight that I tried alongside the author using a “memory palace” idea was to remember a list of odd “to do” items, using the house in which I grew up to store the memories. I encourage readers of this blog to try it too, though I will give you the shortened list (from memory):

  • Pickled garlic – end of my driveway
  • Cottage cheese – in a wading pool on my front stoop featuring Heidi Klum in said pool (Foer’s coach suggest Claudia Schiffer, but Klum kept popping in my wading pool)
  • Peat smoked salmon – in the closet to the left of my front door once I walked in
  • 6 bottles of white wine – on the weird couch in my living room that featured some sort of colonial scenes printed on the fabric
  • 3 pairs of socks – hanging on the mantle near the fireplace
  • Hula hoops – on the dining room table that came into our house in 1976
  • A snorkel – in the dishwasher in the kitchen
  • A dry ice machine – on the dark stained wood shelves cut like semi-circles that were at the end of the island separating our dining room and kitchen
  • Email Sophia – my dad, in the room that was the library/study, sitting at his desk typing (this memory has no computer in it for me but by adding the visual of my colleague Sophia sitting near my dad, it stuck in my head)

That is as far as I got, but given that I did this task a few hours ago, then rode a bike for a bit, lifted some weights, and went swimming in between, I would say that is not too bad. I won’t go through all of the text, but I believe it can function as an important tool for teachers to attempt to grasp and pass on to their students. If it is successful with small portions of their students, teachers can perhaps limit certain frustrations when dealing with the remembrance of things past.

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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

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