Tag: Joshua Foer

Remembering More of Everything: The Memory Palace

“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’
it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.”

— Joshua Foer

***

That’s a quote from the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the fascinating account of Joshua Foer’s journey investigating memory.

What starts as a routine piece of writing ends with his participation in the USA Memory Championships. While interviewing contestants for the article he was told that anyone could have a memory like these champions if they trained properly. Intrigued, Foer decided to give it a try.

The journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle, and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level. Did that make the brains of these “mental athletes” physically different from yours or mine?

Foer found research where MRI was used to compare the memory specialists’ brains to those of a control group. There was no difference between the brain structure of the two. However, during the act of memorizing, the regions of the brain which “lit up” were completely different. 

Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation.

It turns out the mental athletes were purposefully converting the information they were memorizing into images, and then placing these images into a mentally constructed “palace” — thus the involvement of visual memory and spatial navigation.

Foer goes into great (and fascinating) detail regarding the science of memory (which we’ve covered some before). However, let’s explore the specific techniques that Foer learned while studying the memory athletes.

The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace is a device that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, to help encode their memories for easy retrieval. This was a time before smart devices; if you wanted information at your fingertips you had to put that information in your head. You’d do it through a process the modern memory athletes call elaborative encoding.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

The memory palace technique is about changing your memories into images placed in a familiar mental location. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your Palace looking at your memories to recall them.

They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.

The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our head. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context. Creating a multi-sensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick.

‘Now, it’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily.’ The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.

Try to animate your image so that you watch it move. Try to think of what it might smell like or feel like and make it as vivid as possible. This is you processing your image. Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why this works.

***

Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front porch, try to remember as many details as possible.

Let’s imagine that your spouse has asked you to pick up a few steaks from the grocery store for dinner. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.

Got it?

Okay, now lets try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch, not like a cow would, like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubble gum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about what that bubble gum would smell like or the strange smell of a mixture of bubble gum and cow. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubble gum off of the cow’s face?

Four hours from now when you leave work to head home you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When you take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front porch. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks, that you see all the time? Or the gum chewing cow we created?

A professional memory athlete will put objects in multiple places within their palaces and have more than one palace in their repertoire. Some will even design their own fictional palaces in great detail, designed specifically as a place to hang memories.

The Memory Palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember.

What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.

PAO: Person – Action – Object

In this system every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object.

The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.

As you can see this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about Frank Sinatra kicking a cape before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your ‘stock images’ as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.

You may look at PAO and think that it’s a very clever way to memorize numbers, a party trick, but not necessarily useful for most of us from day to day. Maybe true, but Foer shares a great insight into the residual effects of training your memory.

I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.

This reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our life.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory… Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.

We are a culmination of our experiences, how we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavour.

Foer’s personal account in Moonwalking with Einstein is a great starting point for your own mental journey. While you’re waiting for that to arrive, start reading our four part series on our memory’s advantages and weakness, starting here

The Best way to Improve Your Performance

Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.

  1. How you practice makes a big difference. You need to think about feedback loops, deliberate practice, and working in chunks.
  2. The mindset between top performers and amateurs is different.
  3. Sleep is incredibly important.
  4. There is a difference between hard and soft skills.
  5. Leverage tempo, focus, and routines to work for you not against you.
  6. Make sure you have time for rest.
  7. If you want to think, take a walk.

***

Improving Performance

No matter what we do for a living, a common thread is a desire to get better. And yet few of us were taught what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to improving performance.

Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I’d share my “developing world-class performance” commonplace book with you. (Here commonplace book just a fancy word for a folder with notes in it.)

How you Practice Makes the Difference

Four-time world memory champion Joshua Foer says:

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

How you practice and who you practice against makes the difference. 

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)

Feedback loops are how we get better. Funny isn’t it that we rarely get helpful feedback at work whereas world-class performers in almost all other disciplines get regular feedback from a coach. Now you know why we rarely get better at things we do over and over at work.

In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Work in chunks or pulses (and don’t multi-task). Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.

From Talent is Overrated:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Your Mindset Makes A Difference

When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers. Amateurs believe errors were caused by something other than themselves whereas professionals believe they are responsible for mistakes.

From Talent is Overrated:

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Sleep is Key

Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.

In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills

So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) where there are pretty defined rules about good and bad but how can we develop the softer skills? Like Soccer or Swimming?

Change how you practice, increasing the number of repetitions. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Copy people who are better than you. Consider how Ben Franklin improved his writing. Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager, Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Use Leverage to Accelerate Productivity

In order to do our best work, even thinking, we need to focus on one thing

From Your Brain At Work — Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.

Consciously evaluate your hidden scripts that execute to make sure they’re working for you. For instance, your habit of going to work and checking your email might be a good ritual but it might derail your progress because you’re not matching time and energy effectively.

From Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career:

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

While we all need routines and habits to free up our brain for some heavy lifting, it’s important that we regularly review our subconscious processing to make sure it’s still what we need.

Your environment matters more than you think. Think of your physical and virtual environments as nudging your unconscious.

 

You Can’t Work 24/7

You need downtime. I don’t care who you are, there is no way you can work 24/7 for weeks. Leisure has been proven to extend your life, reduce stress, and make you more creative. When you’re at work, work. When you’re not there take some time off. Embrace the ability to do nothing.

From Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

Exercise also has numerous health benefits. From Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home, and School:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

Take a Walk Before Deciding

Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.

From A Philosophy of Walking:

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

Putting it Together

There you go. All of these are helpful individually but together they help you accelerate your performance to new and sustainable levels. It’s simple but it’s not easy.

The Science of High Performance

Research shows that knowing what you want to accomplish is more important than performance … at least at the start. But once you know where you’re going, you can accelerate progress by religiously implementing these steps.

1. Routines

The first tip comes from Tony Schwartz author of The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything. In his contribution to Maximize Your Potential, he recommends harnessing the power of a ritual.

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

Willpower and discipline are over-rated. Systems matter more.

In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister contends that the most successful people don’t make better decisions because of their willpower. Rather, they develop routines and scripts. 

These routines become automatic and reduce the number of decisions we need to make (as well as reducing stress). Our brain doesn’t have unlimited resources so the more we can offload to routines and scripts the more we can put our limited energy to other things.

Developing these routines are key. In Michael Lewis’ profile of President Obama, he writes:

You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” (Obama) said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

If we spend energy making too many little decisions, we’ll have less to make the more important decisions. Some companies are cluing into this.

“I think that the leadership at Google has an intuitive understanding of human nature and the way attention is a limited resource,” says David Rock author of Your Brain at Work. Google organizes their environment to make allow their employees to make fewer decisions.

The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.

When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resources for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”

…Other companies could do well to do the same, noticing what their employees end up wasting their attention on, and doing something about it. It’s sure making me rethink my own company’s benefits policies.

… as well as minimizing distractions and respecting attention, Google does other things to help its people be more productive, in particular being more productive at complex problem solving.

2. Focus

Your routines should be geared towards helping you focus.

In Your Brain at Work, David Rock writes:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance

Combining routine and focus is the sweet spot. Here are two examples you can put into practice today.

First, Mark McGuinness argues in Manage Your Day-to-Day that you should put your most important work first. It’s much easier to deal with less taxing things, like email, later.

The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.

Another way to think of this is to pay yourself first: you are your own most valuable client. That’s what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger do.

Another useful routine is to deal with email in batches, say from 10-11 and 3-4 each day. The rest of the day, turn the email client off so you’re not constantly interrupted with ‘new mail.’ (How to deal with email.)

Consider the wise counsel of Herbert Simon:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

3. Practice

Experience doesn’t always make you better.

In Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Wait. What? That doesn’t make sense.

We typically operate in the OK Plateau.

The bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein and USA Memory Champion in 2005, Joshua Foer explains:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying conscious attention. … The OK Plateau is that point when we reach the autonomous stage and consciously or unconsciously stay to ourselves, “I am OK at how good I have gotten at this task,” and stop paying attention to our improvement. We all reach OK Plateaus in almost everything we do. We learn to drive when we’re teenagers, and at first we improve rapidly, but eventually we are no longer a threat to old ladies crossing the street, and we stop getting appreciably better.

If we want to perform better beyond some basic competence researchers say we must engage in deliberate practice. These are designed, mindful efforts, to master even the smallest detail of success. To get better you have to get out of the autonomous stage.

One way to stay out of the autonomous stage is deliberate practice. Expert musicians, for example, focus on the hardest parts not the easy ones that would allow them to sink into autopilot. The way to get better is to push your limits.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Colvin continues:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Consider a coach.

In his fascinating New Yorker article, Doctor Atul Gawande writes “In theory, people can do this themselves.”

But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.

In other words, the coach provides objective feedback and structure.

Commenting on what it’s like to have a surgical coach, Gawande offers:

Osteen (Gawande’s coach) watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.

This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?

It takes a special person to bring in a coach mid-career and subject themselves to “scrutiny and fault-finding.”

Maybe you’re thinking, I don’t need a coach because “I’m my own worst critic.” That may be the case, however, it is really hard, but not impossible, to be your own (objective) coach. You need structure and objective feedback.

(I don’t want to get into too much nuance, but you also have to think about feedback systems. Part of deliberate practice is immediate and constant feedback. This enables course correction. The time-to-feedback can derail deliberate practice if it’s too long.)

4. Exercise

In Brain Rules, John Medina explores the relationship between exercise and mental alertness:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

5. Rest

Taking time to rest won’t make you a slacker. While the corporate culture of “back-to-back” meetings from 9-5 may seem “cool” it is actually crazy. Rest is a critical component of creating and sustaining excellence.