Upshot extra: Memory

Sometimes I submit an Upshot post with relief. The effort to produce it was a slog, and I’m glad to have it off my plate.

Sometimes submission is a letdown. The research and writing process was such a joy, I’m sad it’s over so soon. It was with this sentiment with which I submitted, two months ago, the post that appears today. (It also appears in the NYT print edition.)

In a couple of days over the winter holidays, I tore through the book at the center of the post — Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. Though I had no particular reason to doubt the effectiveness of the memory techniques he described and used to win the United States Memory Championship, I wanted to test them for myself. (About memorization, see also this post.)

I did so in short sessions spread over a few days, perhaps totaling about a half hour. My task: to memorize as many digits of pi as possible. I began with the first nine firmly implanted in long-term memory, having learned them growing up: 3.1415926. (This happens to be about the number of digits a typical person can hold in short-term memory.) I guessed in 30 minutes I could, perhaps, double this. Boy was I wrong.

With very little effort, using the simple method I describe in my Upshot post, I memorized just over 100.

3.1415926 5358 979 323 84 626 4(33)8 327 950 2(88)4 [1971] 69 399 375 105 820 9(74)9 44 (59)(23) 078 1640 6(28)6 20 8(99)8 6(28)0 (34)825(34) 211 (70)(67) 98 214

Clearly something unusual is going on here, and the spacing and parentheses in these digits of pi indicate, in part, what. The first order of business was to “chunk” pi, or break the series of numbers into more manageable, memorable bits. I did this opportunistically. Whenever a short sequence conveyed something meaningful to me, that became a chunk.

See that “1971” in square brackets above? That’s my birth year. I can remember that! So that became a chunk. All the other chunks are demarcated by spaces. I’ll get to how I made some of the others memorable in a moment.

It’s not enough to remember the chunks. One has to remember them in sequence. So, the next order of business was to associate each chunk, in order, with a place along a familiar route, for which I used my commute to the train. This became my “memory palace” — part of the ancient memorization technique known as the “method of loci” that I describe in the post.

In my mind’s eye, I saw:

  • the “3” and “5s” and “8” of “5358” aligned with the muntins of my back door;
  • “979” and the “323” in the balusters of my back porch;
  • “84” formed my back gate;
  • “626” reminded me of a car (“Mazda 626”), so hung out at the top of my driveway;
  • the “33” of “4338” became two hula dancers in my driveway (the bracketing “4” and “8” just seem easy to remember);
  • and so forth.

Every chunk has a story. Eights (in “2(88)4”) became snowmen on neighbor’s lawn. Numbers that sound like prices (“399,” “375” in sequence) became negotiators haggling in the street. A “44” became a mailbox, right where a mailbox actually exists along my walk. I could go on. I did go on.

It’s completely silly, but it clearly works. Once I proved it to myself, I read into the scientific literature. That’s all in the Upshot post, as is a far more practical use for this method. I do not need to know 100 digits of pi, but it’s very cool to me that I can memorize them — and much more — if I want to. Learning this and writing about it was tremendous fun.

You can memorize like this too. It’s not hard. Read and learn why.


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