Monday, February 21, 2011

Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: How I trained my brain and became a world-class memory athlete

Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: How I Trained My Brain and Became a World-Class Memory Athlete

This fascinating NYT piece of auto-journalism tells the story of a reporter's journey from a very average, memory novice to becomming a United States memory champion- Yep! There are national and world memory championships. Not just a good story, the article takes a foray into the history of memory development as skill, art, and science, all the while providing clues about how you can develop your own memory bank, or "palace" as you shall soon call it (after reading the article).

Anthropologically, the article is interesting because it shows how the expression of human genetic traits is socially and historically contingent and not just a product of genes and biology- meaning that genetic traits are plastic, or flexible. This plasticity allows us to adapt to environmental constraints and opportunities, which are themselves influenced by both bio-physical changes and cultural variability. This helps explain how and why we humans are so adaptable. For instance, reading the article, you can see that although the human capacity for memory has remained relatively unchanged throughout history, memory has been utilized in very different ways, and for very different purposes in different historical and cultural epochs. Changes in memory use through time can therefore be seen as adaptive responses to ongoing bio-physical and cultural processes of change.

As students in an introductory anthropology course, the article can of course be read in another, more personal way. It is, after all, akin to a mini-memory development manual. The author, Joshua Foer, makes clear that the techniques he used to become national memory champion are available to us all: “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”

What does he mean by "used properly"? This has something to do with biology. Recognizing the influence that socio-cultural processes have had on the expression or use of human memory does not diminish the fact that there are real, biological limits to human capacity for memory. This is due to the structure of the human brain, which has evolved in response to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the dominant mode of subsistence for most of human history on earth. All of the memory boosting techniques mentioned in the article are spatially oriented, reflecting how our need for spatial and visual memory, both historically and pre-historically, may have affected the evolution of brain development.

The excerpt below explains how our biological capacity for memory may have evolved:

"Like every other one of our biological faculties, our memories evolved through a process of natural selection in an environment that was quite different from the one we live in today. And much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition but is maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast-food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly suited for our contemporary information age. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially."

So, remembering that we are both social and biological creatures, put on your memory caps and glasses and start developing your spatio-visual memory skills!

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