Brain Training With Ed Cooke
Memory Champ Gives Us Tips to Remember
A former memory protégé, Josh Foer (brother of Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote Everything Is Illuminated) has sold rights to Moonwalking With Einstein, a memoir documenting his tour on the memory champion circuit, to Penguin for $1.2 million. The book is likewise being considered for a film adaptation; not to mention, Cooke is in the process of developing revolutionary memory-advancing software (based on individualized memory exercises), and considering a launch into the American market. PsychoPEDIA caught up with Cooke during his recent stint in the U.S. to talk about memorization techniques, the memory champion community, and more:
How did you get into memorization?
I was always interested enough in memory to pay attention to it. But, when I was 18, I had a form of juvenile arthritis, which meant that my joints swelled up as the result of a virus. I was in the hospital for about 3 months and all of my friends were traveling and going off to university, so, I was like, ‘damn it I’ve got to do something useful here.’ So I got a bunch of books on learning to remember stuff, and experimented, and spent my time doing that. By the time I came out I could learn a pack of cards, so I thought that was cool.
Do you ever use it for gambling?
I do a bit. I use it as a party trick very often, and that’s actually a more effective way to make money.
When did you start training and doing the competitions?
About four years afterward, my friends were fed up with me repeatedly claiming that I was the fastest card memorizer in the world. They were like, ‘just go to the championships and shut up.’ So I went to Kuala Lumpur in 2003 for the World Memory Championships and came in 10th. That was really fun because I met the rest of the memory community, which is a hilarious bunch of characters from all over the world. They’re very varied. Basically, once it gets to competition level it’s ridiculous because it’s an arbitrarily specific task—knowing numbers, cards. There might be an event with random abstract images, and there’s a specific format where you get 5 images a line of random patterns and you’ve got to learn the order of the images in the line. And you’ll get 250 images total and 15 minutes to learn them.
How would you describe the memory competitors?
They’re terrific fun; there’s German patent attorneys, a Danish clown, a Chinese guy who has learned the entire English-Chinese dictionary verbatim, a few Australians and South Africans. Loads of guys from places like Sweden and Norway, and a really beautiful girl from Mexico. It seems there are more men than women, which doesn’t seem to have to do with talent really. Girls seem to find the necessary training aggressively boring, and I think men tend to have an autistic sort of ability to focus or whatever. It’s quite a young person’s game. There’s no obvious reason why you shouldn’t win it at the age of 60, but it’s not that fun training to that degree. A lot of it has to do with imagination and lack of inhibition. By our age, we become quite good at eliminating socially unacceptable stuff. As a child you’re less concerned—you have a less fully-worked-out capacity for inhibition. You probably feel guilty if on a Tuesday afternoon you’re not doing something that promotes your career, but, as a child, you feel guilty if you’re not doing something that doesn’t enhance your social life and capacity for story-telling and so forth, all of which are integrally linked.
What are some techniques you recommend the average twenty-something practice with?
I think use of imagination is key. Memories are just associations from one memory to another. So, when we talk about a memory, I see a face that triggers another memory that triggers another memory and your name is sort of linked to that. So, it’s one memory feeding into one another. So, in concocting a memory you have to think of two things: one is the object that you’re trying to remember. What’s your surname for instance?
So, that’s kind of a vaguely easy to remember: I would maybe remember Simon of Simon and Garfunkel fame, made out of gold, sitting by your side. And you might have him on a leash, for Alisa. You don’t end up remembering the images necessarily; it just forces you to consider that it’s Gould-Simon, rather than Gould-Derrick, or Gould-Stein. That’s the first thing: focused attention on the details. And, attention is not a power of will. People normally assume and think of attention as a kind of downward force upon yourself—a discipline or concentration. Instead of thinking of attention as the subject and object being somehow linked, think of enchanting the object so as to engage the subject. So, you’re decorating your environment and engaging with it and being interested in it in a way sufficient to call your attention towards it.
There are good attention games you can play. One of my favorite ones is a conversational, one that actually comes from cognitive behavior therapy. It’s an attention game where you’d be talking to me and I’d listen very hard for one minute and, aggressively, in the context of a game, thrust everything from my mind and listen to everything you’re saying, allowing nothing else in. Then, after a minute, you carry on speaking and I spend a minute being deliberately distracted. By playing that on-and-off, on-and-off, you provide yourself with the information of what it’s like to be attending and what it’s like to not be attending. People don’t normally notice. By ritualizing that, you mark the difference more clearly in your mind.