Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: The Story of an Unlikely Mnemonist

Secrets of a Mind-Gamer
is the story of an unlikely mnemonist: someone capable of remembering and recalling large amounts of data. The article has a fantastic opening, providing an example of how one would go about memorizing a random sequence of playing cards:

Dom DeLuise, the comedian, was implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He hocked a fat globule of spittle on Albert Einstein’s thick, white mane, and delivered a devastating karate kick to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI. Michael Jackson engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He defecated on a salmon burger and captured his flatulence in a balloon.

Written by Joshua Foer, the article begins with Foer’s exploration of the world of competitive memory. The more he learned, the more he found out that extraordinary memory had little to do with being a savant or photographic memory. Many competitors had average memories, and instead relied upon unique, associative images to enable their recall.

Anyone, Foer kept hearing, could learn this ability. In the course of researching the article, he ended up putting this theory to the test…

What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity.

As he practiced more and more, Foer began refining his skills. He timed himself against a metronome. He bought a pair of industrial-grade earmuffs to block out noise. He bought a pair of safety glasses, painted them black, and cut a small hole to limit his field of view. Some months later, Foer found himself competing at the U.S.A. Memory Championship.

He won the “speed cards” event by memorizing a deck of 52 cards in 1 minute, 40 seconds.

Note: Just realized Foer is the younger brother of author Jonathan Safran Foer, and is also one of the co-founders of Atlas Obscura. Wowzers!

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