The brain’s warder

Memory palaces today would be unattended and vacant given today's short attention spans, exemplified by popular movies.

The World Memory Championship is but one venue that evidences the virtually endless dimensions of the human mind. At the 2002 competition in England, Dr. Yip Swe Chooi memorized 1,840 digits in an hour. In 2006, Clemens Mayer remembered the first and last names of 90 people and Boris Konrad recalled 214 random words – both over the course of 15 minutes. Memory grandmaster Ben Pridmore memorized the dates of 96 historical events in 5 minutes, and in 2007 he set a new world record by memorizing a deck of playing cards in 26.28 seconds.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing feats to take place at the competition occurred in 2002, when Dominic O’Brien made only 8 mistakes after regurgitating the order of 54 inter-shuffled decks of playing cards (2808 in total), only seeing each card once.

Competitors at this event often use a mnemonic link system technique known as the method of loci, or a memory palace, which enables long lists of information to be stored with greater ease. To construct a memory palace, an individual first imagines a familiar location. For instance, O’Brien’s location was his house. The information to be stored is then identified with specific loci along the route. If Coffman Union were your memory palace for a test on the water cycle, the front doors could occupy water storage in the atmosphere; the piano in the back corner could represent the precipitation and runoff stages; and the escalators could remind you of the ground water storage and condensation stages, and so on.

The memory palace technique dates back to classical antiquity, and remained a part of the dialectic and rhetoric education curriculum for centuries. Some 50 years before Shakespeare penned, “Memory is the warder of the brain,” the Puritans incited a controversy over the implications of this cognitive technique, deeming it impious. Worried that the method’s effectiveness was all too uncertain, and concerned that it produced odious thoughts, memory palace’s place in education rapidly declined.

Since this fallout, practice of memory palaces has been largely informal. You may recall a torture scene in Thomas Harris’ novel when Hannibal Lecter enters his memory palace, or when previously stored memories come back to haunt him.

The Puritans’ revolt may have been prophetic – modern memory palaces would be unattended and vacant, given today’s short attention spans. Imagine the damage a Michael Bay movie would incur upon a memory palace. Robert Ebert captured the essence of “Armageddon” in his review stating, “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”

Bay’s rapid editing style often warrants him the title of an ADD director – the average shot length in “Armageddon” is just over 2 seconds. But raking in over $550 million worldwide at the box office, alone, suggests he must have done something right. The average shot length in Bay’s most recent endeavor, “Transformers”, is even less; and yet, it has already grossed over $707 million since its release in July.

There is no mystery behind the appeal of shorter shots for moviegoers. The success of rapid edits is corroborated by a certain technological phenomenon – an inhospitable environment for memory palace real estate known as television.

Realizing that viewers’ obedience to the command, “Don’t touch that dial” was rather unsuccessful, television producers opted for alternate paths to elicit viewer attention and stimulation. Studies have found that an increased amount of cuts and camera angles procures attention (however mindless it may be) and decreases memory loss (however asinine the information may be).

It may appear as though I’ve forgotten what this article was about, and have wandered into the vacant areas of my memory palace only to discover ulterior attacks on Michael Bay, television, and the Puritans for eradicating useful mnemonic systems-link techniques from the education curriculum. Rest assured; this is not the case.

The moral of the story is one of memory, as human capacities with unlimited potential slowly sidle away from the everyday mindset, but are yet to entirely disappear.

While ordinary individuals cannot be expected to remember the names and faces of everyone associated with the recent grim milestone of 4,000 dead in Iraq, the hope is that we will remember to hold the administration accountable when they assert that not one of the soldiers will have died in vain.

We could enquire after Alberto “I didn’t recall 71 times” Gonzales, who drafted an executive order with the president shortly after the 2001 terrorist attack to limit access to presidential records after they leave office, but he resigned, didn’t he?

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected]