July 19, 2019

Can You Buy a Better Brain?

“I used to be able to memorize the order of a deck of cards. This was when I worked at the mall food court. I learned because a mean older boy on whom I had a big, destructive crush bought me a copy of Joshua Foer’s pop-science memoir Moonwalking With Einstein, which is about memorizing stuff.

In the world of memory competitions, the athletes train their minds with daily practice. The primary tactic they employ is the building of mental “memory palaces” — turning pieces of information into objects and placing them in sequence around a physical space that can be walked through in the mind. So, to memorize a deck of cards, I would assign each card in a traditional deck to someone important in my life. The jack of spades is my uncle Ken. The ace of clubs is my sister Sophie, and so on. I’d flip over three cards at a time, and those three people would be placed together somewhere in my parents’ house, starting with the garage. Once the house was full of 52 oddly-grouped guest stars in my life, I’d go back and convert them into the correct order of the cards in the deck, recite it aloud, and everyone would be impressed. Kind of.

(Actual competitive memorizers can do dozens of decks of cards, not just one. And they can do it very fast.)

Training my memory was a fun way to get rid of excess mental energy, itchy and bored as I was during this summer in suburbia, tortured as I was by this doomed crush. I wanted to impress a genius. I did not yet own a smartphone! I needed a better brain and I had the downtime to pursue it. What better way to do this than to work at it? What better end to put my energies than flexing a muscle over and over?”

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