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  • I'd like to invite you to close your eyes.

  • Imagine yourself standing

  • outside the front door of your home.

  • I'd like you to notice the color of the door,

  • the material that it's made out of.

  • Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.

  • They are competing in a naked bicycle race,

  • and they are headed straight for your front door.

  • I need you to actually see this.

  • They are pedaling really hard, they're sweaty,

  • they're bouncing around a lot.

  • And they crash straight into the front door of your home.

  • Bicycles fly everywhere, wheels roll past you,

  • spokes end up in awkward places.

  • Step over the threshold of your door

  • into your foyer, your hallway, whatever's on the other side,

  • and appreciate the quality of the light.

  • The light is shining down on Cookie Monster.

  • Cookie Monster is waving at you

  • from his perch on top of a tan horse.

  • It's a talking horse.

  • You can practically feel his blue fur tickling your nose.

  • You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie that he's about to shovel into his mouth.

  • Walk past him. Walk past him into your living room.

  • In your living room, in full imaginative broadband,

  • picture Britney Spears.

  • She is scantily clad, she's dancing on your coffee table,

  • and she's singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

  • And then follow me into your kitchen.

  • In your kitchen, the floor has been paved over with a yellow brick road

  • and out of your oven are coming towards you

  • Dorothy, the Tin Man,

  • the Scarecrow and the Lion from "The Wizard of Oz,"

  • hand-in-hand skipping straight towards you.

  • Okay. Open your eyes.

  • I want to tell you about a very bizarre contest

  • that is held every spring in New York City.

  • It's called the United States Memory Championship.

  • And I had gone to cover this contest a few years back

  • as a science journalist

  • expecting, I guess, that this was going to be

  • like the Superbowl of savants.

  • This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies,

  • widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.

  • (Laughter)

  • They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers,

  • looking at them just once.

  • They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers.

  • They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes.

  • They were competing to see who could memorize

  • the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest.

  • I was like, this is unbelievable.

  • These people must be freaks of nature.

  • And I started talking to a few of the competitors.

  • This is a guy called Ed Cook

  • who had come over from England

  • where he had one of the best trained memories.

  • And I said to him, "Ed, when did you realize

  • that you were a savant?"

  • And Ed was like, "I'm not a savant.

  • In fact, I have just an average memory.

  • Everybody who competes in this contest

  • will tell you that they have just an average memory.

  • We've all trained ourselves

  • to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory

  • using a set of ancient techniques,

  • techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece,

  • the same techniques that Cicero had used

  • to memorize his speeches,

  • that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books."

  • And I was like, "Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?"

  • And we were standing outside the competition hall,

  • and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant,

  • but somewhat eccentric English guy,

  • says to me, "Josh, you're an American journalist.

  • Do you know Britney Spears?"

  • I'm like, "What? No. Why?"

  • "Because I really want to teach Britney Spears

  • how to memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards

  • on U.S. national television.

  • It will prove to the world that anybody can do this."

  • (Laughter)

  • I was like, "Well I'm not Britney Spears,

  • but maybe you could teach me.

  • I mean, you've got to start somewhere, right?"

  • And that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me.

  • I ended up spending the better part of the next year

  • not only training my memory,

  • but also investigating it,

  • trying to understand how it works,

  • why it sometimes doesn't work

  • and what its potential might be.

  • I met a host of really interesting people.

  • This is a guy called E.P.

  • He's an amnesic who had, very possibly,

  • the very worst memory in the world.

  • His memory was so bad

  • that he didn't even remember he had a memory problem,

  • which is amazing.

  • And he was this incredibly tragic figure,

  • but he was a window into the extent

  • to which our memories make us who we are.

  • The other end of the spectrum: I met this guy.

  • This is Kim Peek.

  • He was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man."

  • We spent an afternoon together

  • in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books,

  • which was scintillating.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I went back and I read a whole host of memory treatises,

  • treatises written 2,000-plus years ago

  • in Latin in Antiquity

  • and then later in the Middle Ages.

  • And I learned a whole bunch of really interesting stuff.

  • One of the really interesting things that I learned

  • is that once upon a time,

  • this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory

  • was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today.

  • Once upon a time, people invested in their memories,

  • in laboriously furnishing their minds.

  • Over the last few millennia

  • we've invented a series of technologies --

  • from the alphabet to the scroll

  • to the codex, the printing press, photography,

  • the computer, the smartphone --

  • that have made it progressively easier and easier

  • for us to externalize our memories,

  • for us to essentially outsource

  • this fundamental human capacity.

  • These technologies have made our modern world possible,

  • but they've also changed us.

  • They've changed us culturally,

  • and I would argue that they've changed us cognitively.

  • Having little need to remember anymore,

  • it sometimes seems like we've forgotten how.

  • One of the last places on Earth

  • where you still find people passionate about this idea

  • of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory

  • is at this totally singular memory contest.

  • It's actually not that singular,

  • there are contests held all over the world.

  • And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.

  • A few years back a group of researchers at University College London

  • brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab.

  • They wanted to know:

  • Do these guys have brains

  • that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours?

  • The answer was no.

  • Are they smarter than the rest of us?

  • They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests,

  • and the answer was not really.

  • There was however one really interesting and telling difference

  • between the brains of the memory champions

  • and the control subjects that they were comparing them to.

  • When they put these guys in an fMRI machine,

  • scanned their brains

  • while they were memorizing numbers and people's faces and pictures of snowflakes,

  • they found that the memory champions

  • were lighting up different parts of the brain

  • than everyone else.

  • Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using,

  • a part of the brain that's involved in spatial memory and navigation.

  • Why? And is there something the rest of us can learn from this?

  • The sport of competitive memorizing

  • is driven by a kind of arms race

  • where every year somebody comes up

  • with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly,

  • and then the rest of the field has to play catchup.

  • This is my friend Ben Pridmore,

  • three-time world memory champion.

  • On his desk in front of him

  • are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards

  • that he is about to try to memorize in one hour,

  • using a technique that he invented and he alone has mastered.

  • He used a similar technique

  • to memorize the precise order

  • of 4,140 random binary digits

  • in half an hour.

  • Yeah.

  • And while there are a whole host of ways

  • of remembering stuff in these competitions,

  • everything, all of the techniques that are being used,

  • ultimately come down to a concept

  • that psychologists refer to as elaborative encoding.

  • And it's well illustrated by a nifty paradox

  • known as the Baker/baker paradox,

  • which goes like this:

  • If I tell two people to remember the same word,

  • if I say to you,

  • "Remember that there is a guy named Baker."

  • That's his name.

  • And I say to you, "Remember that there is a guy who is a baker."

  • And I come back to you at some point later on,

  • and I say, "Do you remember that word

  • that I told you a while back?

  • Do you remember what it was?"

  • The person who was told his name is Baker

  • is less likely to remember the same word

  • than the person was told his job is that he is a baker.

  • Same word, different amount of remembering; that's weird.

  • What's going on here?

  • Well the name Baker doesn't actually mean anything to you.

  • It is entirely untethered

  • from all of the other memories floating around in your skull.

  • But the common noun baker,

  • we know bakers.

  • Bakers wear funny white hats.

  • Bakers have flour on their hands.

  • Bakers smell good when they come home from work.

  • Maybe we even know a baker.

  • And when we first hear that word,

  • we start putting these associational hooks into it

  • that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date.

  • The entire art of what is going on

  • in these memory contests

  • and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life

  • is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers

  • into lower-case B bakers --

  • to take information that is lacking in context,

  • in significance, in meaning

  • and transform it in some way

  • so that it becomes meaningful

  • in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.

  • One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this

  • dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece.

  • It came to be known as the memory palace.

  • The story behind its creation goes like this:

  • There was a poet called Simonides

  • who was attending a banquet.

  • He was actually the hired entertainment,

  • because back then if you wanted to throw a really slamming party,

  • you didn't hire a D.J., you hired a poet.

  • And he stands up, delivers his poem from memory, walks out the door,

  • and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses,

  • kills everybody inside.

  • It doesn't just kill everybody,

  • it mangles the bodies beyond all recognition.

  • Nobody can say who was inside,

  • nobody can say where they were sitting.

  • The bodies can't be properly buried.

  • It's one tragedy compounding another.

  • Simonides, standing outside,

  • the sole survivor amid the wreckage,

  • closes his eyes and has this realization,

  • which is that in his mind's eye,

  • he can see where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting.

  • And he takes the relatives by the hand

  • and guides them each to their loved ones amid the wreckage.

  • What Simonides figured out at that moment

  • is something that I think we all kind of intuitively know,

  • which is that, as bad as we are

  • at remembering names and phone numbers