I have a pretty bad memory, especially when it comes to remembering names and faces. I don’t think it has anything to do with age, although I’m sure that’s not helping either. I could be introduced to people several times or bump into those I’ve often met before and draw blanks when it comes to knowing who they are let alone remembering their names.
So when I meet people, most of the time I put on my biggest and friendliest smiles and hope that they take it as a sign that I recognise them and happy to see them again. Complete strangers might mistake me for being a friendly soul, but for those whom I’ve met before, the vacant look in my eyes is often a dead give away, and the embarrassing ‘you don’t remember me, do you?’ would follow.
I don’t know whether it’s my partially shortsighted eyes or just sheer laziness on my part, or even the lack of capacity in my brain to store this type of information, but for the profession I’m in, forgetting people’s names and faces is a real handicap. The number of times I’ve sat next to some ministers, parliamentary members or other high ranking public officials and had absolutely no clue what their names were and even who they were, is just too numerous.
Thus, when I came across a book given to me by a friend called ‘Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything’ written by one Joshua Foer, an American journalist, I devoured it like a longterm sick man who’s finally found a cure. The book recounts the journalist’s experience of attending a Memory Championship (I didn’t even know there’s such a thing), became fascinated by how some people were able to remember just about everything, from reeling off lists of hundreds of random words and tens of digits of numbers, names and faces as well as remembering the order of decks of cards.
The interesting thing about it is that the people that took part in the championship are not geniuses as such or born with any particular talent or have peculiar-shaped brains. At least, not more so than people who have a great interest in sports, games and other activities that require continuous and correct training in order to be good at them. As a matter of fact, the participants of the championship (mostly relatively young and obviously with a lot of time on their hands) call themselves mental athletes, and in Europe this type of championship is taken very seriously.
Memory grand masters could memorise and reel off an impossible list of things, numbers and facts accurately even if it takes them hours to do it: all using a method that anybody could learn.
The writer’s own interest grew from a journalistic curiosity to the desire to know how the human brain and how our memory worked, and then as an experiment, to see if he himself could become a US Memory Champion in one year through daily practice. Which, by the way, he did. Which just goes to show what my high school teacher had always told us, that if you apply yourself seriously enough, you could do anything, including memorise and recite hundreds of fifteen digit numbers in five minutes.
So, how does this wonderful thing called our memory work? Our brains are actually very good at forgetting. Especially things like numbers, shopping lists, random facts, and in my case, names and faces. Most of you probably know already that the way we remember things is through associations, whether through remembering the experience, the emotion, the sight, the smell and the taste. A waft of perfume could suddenly make you recall a long-forgotten friend or the time when you visited an aunt’s place when you were young.
In the case of the French writer Marcel Proust, the taste of the little ‘madeleine’ cakes transported him back into his childhood and gave birth to volumes of stories and recollections under the title ‘Remembrances of Things Past.‘
Usually the more unique the experience, the stronger is the memory. We might find it difficult to remember what we had for lunch the week before and where, or even the day before yesterday, because the event was unmemorable; lost in the sea of other unmemorable lunches. However, the chances are we would remember that terrible meal in that awful restaurant back in the last century when you walked out of your girl or boyfriend because s/he confessed to have cheated on you.
Improving the memory, therefore, is a matter of creating associations of the things you want to remember, using what is referred to as mnemonics. The stronger the association or the more vivid the imagination involved, the better you will remember it. With things like shopping list or the dates of the kings and queens of England however, you have to mentally create the associations in order to have perfect recall as most of us cannot remember beyond a handful of things or anything longer than seven numbers. This, one does by creating what the book calls memory palaces - familiar places that you conjure up in your imagination, where you stick the things you want to remember and then retrieve them like mental Post-Its.
For example, if you need to remember to do list items such as shopping for smoked salmon, a bottle of wine, a pair of socks, a Paul Newman DVD, picking up the dry cleaning etc, you put the said items mentally and vividly in specific areas of your memory palace and recalling them is a matter of retracing your step and mentally encountering the objects.
Numbers can be remembered in more or less the same way, that is encoding them into letters, personalities, actions and objects or other associative images that your memory could happily hook on. One could do the same with people’s names; for instance, to remember a certain Mr Fisher you could imagine the person fishing or have a fish for a head.
May be that’s why I have problems remembering names. Unless the person is called Hotman Paris or Cinta Laura, with a lot of Indonesian names it is not that easy to find a hook to hang your memory on.
(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)