Quincy M.E. and Cameron Diaz doing the La Bamba


written by John on September 30, 2011

Pun intended : you may or may not remember that I have a particular interest in memory. If you read this post you can see why my interest would be piqued by a review of a book called “Moonwalking with Einstein – the Art and Science of Memory“, as it’s a very similar story to mine; someone with an average memory (or in my case, a terrible memory) discovers amazingly effective memory techniques, then spends a year memorizing all kinds of obscure things with ease, but ultimately, realises he still can’t remember where he left his car keys, or his car! and also realises that even though these techniques are very handy for some things, it’s still far easier to write down shopping lists and stick people’s numbers in your phone. The one big difference with my story and this is that I didn’t end up entering a national memory competition.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began writing an article about the U.S Memory Championships, and then a year later gave as good as the other memory masters. “Moonwalking with Einstein” is bookended by those two events; his attendance at the 2005 U.S Memory Championship, and his entry into the 2006 event. What you get between the book ends is a fascinating exploration of the science, art, and history of memory, mnemonics and memory techniques.

When I first heard of the book, I thought it may only be for people like me who have an interest in mnemonics but it’s selling by the truckload and getting great reviews everywhere. The title “Moonwalking with Einstein” is a reference to the kind of mental image that’s all too familiar to anyone who uses these techniques. When the missus asks me for one of my numerous pin numbers, or the WiFi code, or similar, I say something like, “let’s see that’s a bear on a bike trying to eat a cat in a shell…. that’s 94977165.” So I found reading about someone else’s experience with all this stuff a fantastic read. Though everyone else seems to be enjoying it just as much.

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And from a different angle, but wholly related, about a month ago I came across a website called Memrise. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, rather than the usual quick tweet when I come across a site I like. Memrise is a really well thought-out site designed to help your learn, or rather, memorize the vocabulary of various languages. I’ve been on beginners Spanish for the last month. I’ve been on/off trying to learn Spanish for years.

Memrise is by far the best tool language tool I’ve ever used. There’s the usual stuff: english / spanish phrases, with audio snippets. But every phrase has a mnemonic suggestion, a mem. It’s crowd sourced too, so you can add your own mem. For example a Fortnight in Spanish is Los quince Dias. My mem for this is: “Picture a fort at night, and on top, Los lobos have Quincy M.E. and Cameron Dias dancing to La Bamba.” How much easier is that to remember than repeating the phrase over and over and hoping it sticks? I’ll never forget that image, another phrase memorised with ease. And at it’s most basic, that’s all the memory champions do, and to some degree Savants too. And Memrise utilises the technique quite well, you don’t even have to come up with your own mental images.

What other language courses fail to do is give you the tools to learn. It’s a bit like buying a wardrobe from Ikea but they don’t give you the tools to build it. Memrise supply the phrases, and the tools to memorise them. By the way, I swear I have absolutely nothing to do with the site, I’m just very impressed by it. Oh and it’s also free. Completely free, as in no ads either. It also works quite well on an iPad. It’s as good as an app, without having to install an app.

The site also uses gamification pretty well too, something else I have a passing interest in that’s growing in popularity. Memrise gamifies language learning by daily quizzing you on your phrases. You get points for every correct answer, and creep up the league table. It becomes quite addictive, like in any game, always wanting to improve your high score and go higher in the league.

They also employ the metaphor of a memory garden, which works quite well. You have to plant seeds (new words), and harvest plants (add them to the quizzes), tend to your garden (practise new words) and water your wilting plants (practice old words). I guess it’s a bit like Farmville, except, instead of annoying everyone else on Facebook, you learn a new language. I’m just so impressed by the level of thought and execution that has gone into this site, without any profit in mind.

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And the thing that ties in “Moonwalking with Einstein” with Memrise is that over the course of the book, there are a few characters who coach Foer in his memory techniques, members of the K7 memory masters, whose initiation is memorizing a deck of cards in a minute, drinking two beers and kissing the knees of three women. Or variations thereof. And it is these two guys Ed Cooke, and Ben Whately who have setup memrise. So I feel like i’ve been surrounded by these guys for the last few weeks.

So there you go if you’ve any interest in memory or learning new language, there’s a 5 star book and a 5 star web site.

p.s. I was discussing this with a colleague, very recently, who happens to speak Spanish fluently, and he asked me “why don’t you just remember Los quince Dias, instead of dancing on forts and shit?” and I guess some people can, but he’s just reinforcing my idea that a lot of people make the terrible assumption that everyone else learns, and thinks, and remembers exactly like them.

 


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