I was recently lent The Mind of a Mnemonist, an account of a fellow with a remarkable eidetic memory written by reknowned Russian psychologist AR Luria. I already had a long backlog on my to-read list, but my rule of thumb is that when beauteous women semi-randomly lend you books, you should read them. So I did.

The mnemonist the title refers to is S., who made his living putting on shows where he would memorize vast lists of numbers, words, random syllables, and recite them back. He could instantly recall the lists he had memorized decades earlier. Otherwise, he was somewhat feeble- or at least simple-minded — no genius intellect, he. So how did he do it? A couple of ways. One was by turning any input whatsoever into a story he could visualize. Presented with a complex mathematical expression beginning N · √, for instance, he remembered it thusly: "Neiman [N] jabbed the ground with his cane [·], then passed a tree [√]..." and went on in this vein for paragraphs. For S., visualizing this multi-paragraph story was easier than simply remembering the characters on the page. His other technique was to take advantage of his synesthesia (which is why the beauteous woman alluded to above thought of this particular book in connection with me) and remember words by their color and taste.

This got me thinking about how back in the day people would ask me to randomly memorize stuff (or multiply numbers, or... well, let's just say that the last couple of pages of Ready, Okay! are not entirely uninformed by personal experience). How did I memorize long lists of stuff? If you were hoping for an exciting answer, well, prepare for a disappointment — it was just chunking. You know, like with phone numbers: instead of remembering ten elements, like 7, 1, 4, 9, 9, 8, 7, 5, 7, 8, you can remember three: 714, 998, 7578. They say that most people can remember 7 ± 2 chunks of information; the trick that I unconsciously used was to tree those chunks. So, for instance, let's say I had 250 digits to remember. Difficult, but split them up into phone numbers (chunks of 3, 3 and 4 digits) and there are only 25 to remember. Split those up into five lists of five phone numbers and that's all 250 digits. It's even easier if there's some liberty in setting the boundaries of a chunk. My phone number in Sammamish was 4254276976. Split it up the traditional way and it's not very memorable. But try this: 425-4276-976. Now the first two chunks begin with the same two digits, and the last two chunks end with the same two digits. Easy! Yet somehow this threw most people for a loop. "No, no, the first part of a phone number has to have three digits or my head explodes..."

And now that that digression has padded this entry out to a respectable length, I will stop. Go read Academy X!

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