Everyone complains about their memory. Why do we find it hard to remember?
Our memory actually works very well. We often complain about it because today we’re living in a world of surplus information and lots of distractions. We tend to think we have a poor memory because we can’t find the keys, for instance. Statistically, that happens three times a month. We don’t count the other 150 times when we did find them. We see ourselves as having a good or a poor memory, but it’s not right: Some people have a good memory for faces and names, some find it easy to learn languages − the trick is to understand in which areas our memory is weak and to work on it.
Is it really possible to work on your memory?
What’s nice is that we can definitely develop extraordinary memory skills. During my presentations people give me a 50-digit number and I repeat it. I can do it from the end to the beginning or from beginning to end. It’s a technique. Anyone can do it. I tell people something that makes them very angry: that there’s no such thing as a photographic memory. There has never been a human being who is able to look at a page, photograph it and repeat it word for word.
Yes. I’m telling you clearly and simply, there’s no such thing as a photographic memory. There’s a trained memory. You can do very nice things with it. They always tell me, “What about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who can remember what’s written on any page of the Talmud.” But he has studied it all his life. Give Rabbi Yosef page 173 of “Harry Potter” and 20 seconds to learn it − he won’t succeed.
In your books you teach techniques for improving memory, and the books are very successful in the Far East.
In South Korea the book has been on the bestseller list for a month. That’s
When you come to Korea, what’s the reaction?
Really bizarre. They report on the news programs that I’ve arrived. They organize press conferences, loads of cameras, one interview after another and posters of me. I enjoy it very much, but I feel like some actor. I tell myself, “Play the game.”
How did you even manage to break into the Asian market?
My dream was actually the United States. I’ve always wanted an American publisher. I sent out manuscripts even before the era of emails, and received 300 rejections. And then I started to do some work in the Foreign Ministry, in public relations. I started traveling to all kinds of Far Eastern countries to do some PR for Israel, so here and there I found a publisher, and suddenly the books started to succeed. In the end, incidentally, because of their success in Asia, the books were also published by the American publisher Random House. Somehow the dream came true.
And did they succeed?
No. They sell, but not in numbers I’m used to [elsewhere].
You work with diverse audiences, with great cultural differences. Do you have the impression that culture plays a role in the way we remember? Or is it something universal?
Absolutely universal. The difference lies in other things. There’s a part of my lecture in which I give as an example a situation in which someone finds $50 in the street and feels that he’s lucky. At that workshop in Japan several people came over to me and asked me a question that amazed me. They wanted to know why he took the money. I said to them, “What do you mean? It’s $50.” “Yes,” they replied, “but it’s not his.”
Yes. I once forgot a brand-new camera on the train in Tokyo. It was waiting for me at the lost and found.
I’m crazy about the Japanese. It’s great. My wife says that they’re naive. Why naive? It’s simply nice.
You made it into the Guinness Book of World Records after you succeeded in remembering a 500-digit number. Why did you do it?
Because if I tell people they can do amazing things, I should do something too. I wanted to prove to myself that I could. And of course, the less romantic reason is PR for the book.
And you recently broke yet another record.
Yes. This time it was somewhat different. I remembered 100 colors. They gave me 100 colored stickers, mixed them up, and I had to repeat them in order.
How did you do it?
Techniques. I learned it from a Russian Jew named Stanislav Vinsheim. I mention the fact that he’s Jewish because he took the method from gematria (Jewish numerology).
Where the numbers are encoded into letters.
Exactly. And you invent words. The 500 digits are 250 words that you can
remember as an associative story.
And how did you remember the colors?
I’m not going to reveal that yet. But it’s also simple.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve seen anyone do with the help of his memory?
I haven’t seen anything extreme. I’m already familiar with everything that’s done to remember something.
You’re like the people who are familiar with magicians’ tricks.
True. People are very attracted to this subject of a phenomenal memory. Years ago I saw some magician or mentalist on television doing the trick I do with numbers, and he claimed that he had a divine gift. I was really furious, because I knew that anyone can do it. That was the trigger for writing my first book.
Why were you even attracted to studying memory?
I was a poor student in high school. I looked for ways to improve. I started reading all kinds of books about memory, I implemented the techniques, I saw results and over the years I started to improve them and add some of my own.
What’s the most creative use you’ve made of your abilities?
I studied in Belgium, and to be accepted to the school where I studied you had to know French. The lessons were in English but French was a criterion. And I don’t know a word of French. I asked my wife to prepare me a page with a text in French: “I speak French but I have to improve a little, I studied the following, I have to work at it, etc.” The selections were done in the Belgian embassy, there were also Israelis on the committee, and when they asked “How’s your French” − I started with my speech. The Israelis interrupted me, saying, “We get it. You know French.” The next day I received a call saying I had received a scholarship. I was the only one who received it, out of 60 people.
Once we went to Aqaba and we had a terrible guide. Really. I went into a bookshop, sat there for 15 minutes with a guidebook, and when I left I already could tell you everything you had to know about Aqaba.
Explain, what’s the technique?
In principle it’s linking information to a location and “filing” it. When my daughter was studying for the matriculation exam in history, she asked me to help her remember the Declaration of Cyrus. I told her, look at your room, here’s the closet. Cyrus allowed the Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel, imagine that your closet opens and all the Jews emerge from it. Look at your bureau − Cyrus allowed the Jews to bring all their silver vessels, etc. − imagine a beautiful branched menorah on it. That’s how we went through all the items in the room for all the ideas she had to talk about. And then we constructed the story: closet, bureau, bed, etc. And that’s how she remembered. There’s no limit to locations, by the way. In the refrigerator alone you can fit an entire book between the vegetables and the milk.
Those are very ancient techniques.
Yes. This method is called the Roman Room technique. The Greeks and the Romans developed it. There’s a story about a poet called Simonides, who was once attending a banquet, and when he went outside for a moment there was an earthquake that destroyed the building, and the only one who could identify the bodies was Simonides, who remembered the order of seating around the table.
In what other ways can we help ourselves to remember?
The best method for remembering is to be passionate about something. Even artificially. That’s what Jews do. Movement, memorizing material while walking, in order to increase the flow of blood to the brain.
I’ve read that among other things you help yeshiva students to improve their memory. What do you teach them?
The techniques are identical, only the materials change. Let’s say, how to rememberhalakhot (religious laws).
So there aren’t many techniques and they work on the same principle. To make a crude generalization, we’ll remember better if there’s emotion involved in memory, or if we’ve managed to create an association to something else that’s already well anchored in our memory.
Precisely. Awareness is also very important. To remember names, for example, you have to be genuinely interested in the people whose names you have to try to remember. We’re usually focused on ourselves and on the impression we make at events. We aren’t free to take real interest in the person before us. Then we think “His name escapes me.” It didn’t escape. It was simply never there. Another method for remembering is cataloging. If you want to remember a long list at the supermarket, you’ll remember it better if you divide it into dairy
products, vegetables, etc.
Everything that we don’t remember falls precisely outside those areas. What doesn’t really interest us, doesn’t remind us of anything, and that we haven’t
Right. Information we haven’t filed in our brain simply gets lost. If you’ve filed it, you can pull it out. But not always, you know. The techniques are not foolproof.
What do you have trouble remembering?
Yes. I simply meet thousands of people each month. They all expect me to remember them. That’s really a problem.
Doesn’t technological progress make all those techniques superfluous? Is there still any significance to memorization? Are you familiar with the argument of futurist Ray Kurzweil? He claims we no longer have any need for memory based on memorization.
But why do I really have to waste resources on memorizing the date of the Wannsee Conference? I have my iPhone and I can check in a second.
And what do you want to talk about with people 100 years from now? How will conversations look? Will I send you a link to the subject of our conversation? You’ll send me back to a link about things you want to talk about? There’s no substitute for human memory. Technology will never replace it.
But in the future I’ll be able to put a small hard disk inside my brain. And to remember by using it.
What are you talking about? What nonsense. That will never happen.
Kurzweil would be insulted if he were to hear you now.
With all due respect − let him do it first in his brain, and then we’ll see.
Meanwhile technology is placing a big burden on us. It’s also constantly becoming more sophisticated, increasingly tempting. I can’t count how many times a day I repeat the motion of picking up my iPhone and looking at emails and messages.
We’re in trouble, and we’re getting into worse trouble as years go by, and problems of attention and concentration will become more severe. I have a fear that eventually people will be total zombies. They won’t be capable of concentrating for five minutes during a conversation.
Let’s talk about erasing memories.
Being able to forget is just as important as a good memory. The traumas, the past, the pain, all are a tremendous burden. They also cause us to get into a rut. Anyone who has experienced a painful separation will be afraid to fall in love again, for example. And if there were a way − and there is − to transfer those memories into the “recycle basket,” as in a computer, that would make things easier for us.
What’s the way? How do you erase memory?
The first stage is to dull the emotion involved in the memory. Of course the stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. So, for example, forgiveness is a very powerful tool.
If someone broke my heart, am I supposed to simply tell myself all day long “I forgive him?”
Yes. The mind is stupider than we think. That reinforcement helps, and slowly but surely you begin to believe that you forgive him, that it really wasn’t so terrible, and at the end of the process even to construct an alternative scenario: that you were the one who dumped him. It has been proven beyond a doubt that we can distort memory.
Yes. The experiments of Elizabeth Loftus, let’s say. But what do you do about painful memories that don’t depend on anyone else? That are the result of force majeure?
What has to be done in such situations is to find something positive about the negative memory.
Right. After I wrote the book I received a moving email from a psychiatrist, who wrote that he works with Holocaust survivors. He took that idea from my book and tried it, and talked with his patients about what could be positive about a concentration camp. It turns out that there are positive things. One of the survivors said that he participated in a death march, at some point he collapsed and fell to the ground, and one of the Nazi soldiers told the marchers next to him: “Pick him up. The law obligates me to shoot him if he’s on the ground, and I don’t want to kill him.” That soldier saved his life. Another patient told about a female Nazi officer who liked her and would sneak food to her.
Were you able to erase your own difficult memories?
My personal story is that when I was 24 years old my father died of cancer. That was painful. But at the same time something more traumatic happened to me − my best friend committed suicide. He shot himself in the head. Five
minutes earlier he had spoken to me on the phone.
Yes. It was very rough. At some point my mother saw that I was having trouble getting over it, and she said something to me that I take with me to this day. She said, “You’ve lost people who are dear to you, but you’re going to lose more people in your life and you have to live with those who are here and not those who aren’t.” And like some wonder drug − a real order to the brain − I did “Delete.” I said I was putting them aside. I love them and I’ll remember them but they won’t live with me.