I’m So Poor I Can’t Even Pay Attention: Memory, Mind Palaces, and the Hellmouth in My Basement

One of the more incredible aspects of my reading journey is how I’m always finding links between the books I read. Whether I consciously choose my next book based on triggers from a book I just finished, or whether I sometimes stretch a little to make the associations, there’s always a thread of continuity from one book to the next, and suddenly the map of the books I read blossom like a web of interconnectivity in my mind.

I’ll begin the last book I finished, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Nominally the story of a journalist who decided to delve into the arcane subculture of memory championships, where participants memorize decks of cards, unknown poems, and strings of numbers all for the sake of challenging the memory and the dubious honor of the title “memory champion.”

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The book delves into not only the history of the tradition of memorization, prized in a time when books were scrolls and the printing press was still a distant future invention, but the function and creation of memory, the savants who memorize entire phone books and those who, due to brain damage, are incapable of creating new memories.

The book does not delve deeply into any of these subjects, but functions as a tour of the many, many different aspects of memory. There’s declarative and non-declarative, semantic and episodic, verbal and visual types of memory, working memory (where did I put my glasses?) and long-term memory.

The most fascinating aspect is method by which memory champs employ their immense skills of remembering: the memory palace. Coined in an apocryphal story about Simonides, the mind palace is a place or route, real or imagined, that exists in your mind for the purpose of creating a spatial architecture where you can deposit the things you wish to remember (grocery lists, the presidents of the United States, the complete works of Charlaine Harris) and then “remember” them by taking a journey through the space.

Your memory palace can be a simple as your childhood home, as complex as an entire town, or completely imaginary.

The reason this method is so effectively is simply that our brains evolved to process and remember spatial information much more effectively than verbal information. Language has only existed the last 10,000 years or so; the earth much, much longer.

The creation of these mental maps, while ingrained in our DNA, is made difficult by a world in which constant stimulation, hyper-multitasking, and information overload is the order of the day. In trying to process and remember everything, we end up retaining very little. It’s easy to watch 24 straight hours of youtube videos and awake from our fugue with several empty doritos bags and absolutely no memory of what we watched.

The irony of being a spatially savvy species, for me, is that I have struggled for my whole life with navigation, finding myself easily lost in cities and zombie-infested wastelands alike. The advent of GPS only further handicapped my navigational skills, to the extent that the only places I can reliably navigate are work, the grocery store, my mom’s house, and the dog park.

To help ameliorate my lack of skill, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley, which is full of little tips that one can use to help navigate, mostly in nature, but also in cities and all the in-betweens.

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While I now know how to find the North Star and can estimate the length of time to sundown using my knuckles, the biggest takeaway is simply this: slow down and look around you. Look at which side of the tree the moss is growing on, notice which direction the wind is coming from. Look at the sky. Look at the ground. Stop for just a second and appreciate the present moment. Listen to the birds.

How does this jive with memory palaces and remembering your grocery list? Because when we notice the world around us,then every walk we take becomes a potential memory palace, a space that we can snatch from the physical world and implant in our minds, places we can fill with Civil War generals or Pixar films or every World Series winner or whatever we’d like.

I decided to test out this memory palace thing with all of the books I’ve read this year, 67 so far. I took a house that I lived in for a few years, large enough to accommodate at least 100 (my reading goal) and began in the basement. I not only tossed objects around, but created a storyline that included everything from a possessed Christmas ornament to a possessed tree, incorporating real life props like that creepy old chest in the basement and the moment when I learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Because so many of the books I read are horror books, the whole experience was genuinely creepy at times.

But did it work?

Yes, yes it worked, and the ridiculous story I created as I traveled around my old house and fled the apparent hellmouth in the basement was a little difficult and a lot of fun.

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