Muddled memory

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We are planning a short trip to see my sister who now lives in Hartford, Connecticut. But I have misplaced the tickets. “If you had read the same book as me ...” begins Bins. “Stop lecturing!” I snarl. “Just find the TICKETS!” Needless to say, this only results in a full-blown dissertation on Joshua Foer’s MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN.

“It’s really very helpful,” Bins insists, “especially for people who are losing their minds. Like you.” Losing tickets is not the same as losing my mind, I say. “It’s all about memory,” says Bins. “The author has an idea that anyone can train himself to remember everything. Even where he left the bus tickets.” In order to prove his theory, the author sets himself the target of competing in the US Memory Championship. “The what?” I ask. Bins gives me a withering glance as if to say, “Isn’t it obvious??”

Foer gives himself a year to train. And at the end of that year ... well, yes, OF COURSE, he wins the competition. But not before he’s convinced Bins that, just like the author “anyone can win! It is only a matter of training! And–” he taps the side of his head “–the little grey cells, like the great French detective Hercule Poirot used to call them.” I smirk: “Poirot was BELGIAN, not French!” Bins shrugs. “French, Belgian ... pfff. What matters is the little grey cells. They can be taught to remember. They can be trained to perform like jumping giraffes!” I grimace at this bizarre image.

There are several techniques. “The Memory Palace, for instance,” says Bins. “Using the imagination we build a sky-scraper. Then in every room, we place the thoughts that we want to remember. Then...” he raises his eyebrows dramatically “...to retrieve the thoughts, we just walk around in the imaginary building until – voilà! We find the tickets!” I look around my little home, and shake my head. Alas, in a real room, with real closets, shelves and pockets, there are no tickets to be seen.

Another technique is called PAO: Person-Action-Object. It involves creating mental images in such a way that various sequences can be remembered in the form of weird little scenes. “Ah! So the title of the book is actually a series of numbers?” I ask. “Playing cards,” says Bins. For Foer, Michael Jackson moonwalking with Einstein becomes the King of Hearts followed by the Three of Diamonds.

Each person has to create his or her own library of images, however. “Like jumping giraffes might be 77?” I ask, but Bins shakes his head irritatedly. “Do not make fun,” he scolds. “The human brain is a fabulous instrument but most of us never learn how to play it!” Foer tells us that he had an average person’s memory before he began training. His ultimate success is supposed to convince us that we could all do likewise. “I doubt it,” I say. Then I reach into my pocket for my hanky and voilà! The tickets. “You see?” says Bins triumphantly, as we shoulder our backpacks and prepare to leave the house. “You are smarter than 77 jumping giraffes!” “Whatever!” I sigh, as I lock the door.

M anjula Padmanabhan , author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on March 18, 2016

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