Amazing feats of memory tricks - do they really work?
January 3, 2015 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Last night I was watching Derren Brown's Infamous, in which he claims to be able to recite the entire works of Shakespeare using memory trick techniques (visualisation/creating a narrative etc), and also said he attained one of the highest grades in the country in his A-levels by using them. I'm wondering if this was an impressive stage trick, or if these techniques actually work, I'd also be grateful for any proven techniques for improving long and short term memory recall. Is there anything scientifically-backed out there for this?

I've noticed a few problems with my recall this year and am looking for techniques, books, articles, etc. Any help much appreciated!
posted by everydayanewday to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is on my to-read list - I haven't gotten to it yet, but I have heard many positive reviews of it.
posted by sigmagalator at 4:25 PM on January 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I just read it this last year. In short: yes. Foer talks at length about the exact strategies that people use and teaches himself some of them. It takes work and attention so it's not a short cut exactly but a way of making things stick that you need to have stick.
posted by jessamyn at 4:42 PM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I get the impression Derren Brown has the advantage of being a very very smart person when it comes to mental feats. Maybe that's because of training, maybe it's innate, but it's worth bearing in mind whatever you choose, it's probably going to take a lot of hard work on top of any technique you have to make it work.
posted by ambrosen at 4:56 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is a memory champion that was interviewed on NPR 2 years ago that discussed his techniques (and how embarrassed he was when people expected him to remember their names and he couldn't). I'll try to find the link.
posted by discopolo at 5:13 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh ok, it was Joshua Foer.

(Forgot about him. Guess I need the book, too.)
posted by discopolo at 5:14 PM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I read Moonwalking w Einstein and these tricks are definitely real. The book walks you through a quick example... A couple years later I can still remember some of the random objects on a list he had me memorize. And I am notorious for my weak memorization capabilities.
posted by cacao at 5:16 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd be inclined to believe it's a trick, but I also was in a Shakespeare production and, by the end of it, I had essentially the entire play committed to memory. A friend challenged we with a randome line from the play and I identified the speaker, act, scene, and next line. So... maybe.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:21 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, techniques like using a memory palace and similar have a long history. In oral cultures it is not considered unusual to memorise stories and histories or genealogies that last an hour or more to recite. Most people are just expected to do it. But I'm not sure that using these techniques to learn eg the complete works of Shakespeare would improve your memory in other areas like where you left your keys or what you did last Tuesday. I think memory and memorisation are slightly different.
posted by lollusc at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid, my family had a copy of MegaMemory which basically taught you how to invent and use mnemonics. Did it give me superhuman memory powers? No. Is mnemonics (plus lots and lots of time) generally more effective than repeating something over and over again? Probably.

I don't know about Joshua Foer or Derren Brown in particular, but what I suspect is that these tricks are useful for very specific types of tasks. They can help you if you need to remember a grocery list or an equation for a test. What they don't really help you with is remembering things that you didn't consciously apply a trick to -- for example, where your keys are or the name of that guy you happen to see again. Some people might suggest mindfulness practices for these types of things, but again, any method takes alot of time and effort to become effective.

(On preview, what lollusc said.)
posted by tinymegalo at 5:41 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used a bunch of "tricks" in college for remembering great lists of things. I had a whole story about the essential amino acids having a holiday party that involved describing the shape of them in a way that let me remember how to draw all of them. I can still remember most of the story 5 years later. I can also name all the US presidents in order thanks to the Animaniacs.

Tricks like these definitely work because a story (or a song) is a lot easier to remember than just a list of words. I'm not sure how it helps with long term memory but if you need to remember a list of things for a short period of time it definitely helps.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:42 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a really long history of memory tricks, mostly mnemonics. I use some of them for language learning -- if I can get just the right mnemonics, I can learn a word the first time I see it. In the case of language acquisition, it's a matter of finding an English word that sounds like the foreign word, and then constructing a little story that connects the two together. When you need to remember the word, having the story gives you an additional hook, and after a few times the mnemonic fades away and you just know the word.

There's an annual competition where people demonstrate enormous feats of memory -- the USA Memory Championship. Joshua Foer, the author of the above-mentioned Moonwalking with Einstein, decided to compete, training himself in memory techniques for memorizing a deck of cards, which he then set a speed record for doing. They're definitely learn-able.
posted by maxsparber at 7:04 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are really two questions here.

- Are there techniques a person can use to drastically increase their capacity to memorise long lists of 'things'? Yes - for example, I use a mental map of getting out of bed, getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, getting my keys, heading to the car to remember very long lists; I associate the thing I need to remember with a step of the journey, then have them 'pop up' when I retrace my steps in my head. This didn't take me long to learn, and doesn't take much to refresh. But that's chicken feed. See here for examples of the kinds of feats memory 'champions' can accomplish - for example, having 5 minutes to remember binary numbers, then being able to regurgitate over 1000 digits without an error (or 4000 digits after 30 minutes of study).

- Has Derren Brown actually done this? It's possible. But remember that Derren is foremost a magician and a showman; while he is certainly a skilled mentalist, he also uses regular magic tricks to create the impression that he can control people's minds, and dresses this up in pseudo-scientific gibberish to create the impression that it's all psychology, not a parlour trick. See Simon Singh's take.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:09 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Derren Brown is awesome, and a genius. And as others have said, yes, you can train yourself to use memory methods to do pretty amazing things. As obiwanwasabi said, Derren is a showman as well, so he is allowed to lie about his actual method as part of the show.

For the bit you are asking about, keep in mind that (even assuming the dice rolls were not rigged) he did not need to memorize the complete works in order to pull off this demonstration. He "only" needed to memorize the start of each page of his copy of the book that might come up in a legitimate roll of 3 dice. So... Anything before page 111 isn't even needed. If legitimate, this would still be a remarkable feat, requiring a lot of work, but not impossible for anyone willing to put the time in. But not nearly the same as "memorizing the complete works."
posted by The Deej at 7:11 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

What a clever man Derren Brown is. I always think it's a good job he's not set on world domination. While he is a showman IMO he is as ethical about not misrepresenting his methods as James Randi is - and a lot of his technique is based on quirks of human psychology. He is a consummate observer of people so has a pretty good idea of what makes them tick.

Trick or Treat, Series 2: Derren ambushes Glen, who agrees to compete in a Night of the Champions pub quiz. Can Derren convince Glen that he has a much better memory than he thought, and turn him into a genius in seven days?

This was great fun to watch but it involved so much work for Glen. He had hours of homework every day, reading lists of facts from encyclopaedias and reference books and committing them to memory using a structured system. Glen won the challenge - here's the Telegraph article, Derren Brown turns 'average man' into pub quiz genius.

But how useful is such a regime for improving day-to-day memory? I stayed up all night once memorising maths formulas for an exam, but did it improve my ability to add up when going shopping? Did it heck. Did I remember any formulas once the exams were over? Pfftt. So I think systematic memory techniques generally answer a short term need; and mindfulness might be a better solution to remembering say, peoples names and when to put the rubbish out.
posted by glasseyes at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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