Do decorators have the best memories?

In March, I read Joshua Foer’s new book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Ironically, I remember very few of the many fascinating tidbits about memory that Foer reveals in his book, but that’s not so surprising as Foer contends that our memory has gone downhill since we gave up on our oral traditions in favor of writing, which was a controversial new technology when first introduced. Having said that, yesterday, I was surprised to discover that I do remember a list of commonplace grocery items from the book using one of the memorization techniques Foer discusses – spatial memory. Have you ever noticed how it’s so much easier it is to remember the contents of somebody’s apartment than to remember a random list of items to pick up at the grocery store? According to Foer, it’s possible to sort of hi-jack your brain’s spatial memory as a vehicle to remember other bits of information. The trick is to place the items you want to recall into a familiar context, say your childhood home or if you’re a designer, one of your decorating projects, and then transform the images into something a bit over-the-top or even vulgar, which creates very distinct and memorable visual images. For example, if you’re trying to remember to buy milk, envision giving your ex a sponge bath in a tub filled up with spoilt milk in the bathroom of your first college apartment. Yuck. But memorable.

Image from the article 10 Amazing Ways to Use Milk and Chocolate.

In March, I spent maybe five minutes memorizing part of Foer’s list. Yesterday, I recalled the following: jar of garlic (in an adult human-sized jar at the foot of the driveway at my childhood home), cottage cheese (which I imagined in a large vat by the back door), smoked salmon (on my Mom’s white formica kitchen counter), six bottles of white wine (which are dancing and illuminated by a ray of sunlight streaming into the dining room), 3 pairs of socks (which hang from the molding between the living room and dining room) and that’s it. Foer’s list has several more items, but I was unconvinced that remembering the list was worth the effort (and also became bored). But after re-reading that section of the book yesterday, I’m not so sure. Here are the first few items from Foer’s list: pickled garlic (close enough), cottage cheese, salmon (peat-smoked if poss.), six bottles of white wine, socks (x3). Not too bad considering I read the book four months ago, but it begs the question: do interior designers, who spend lots of time placing hand-picked items in other people’s homes, have potentially better memories than the rest of us? If so, does it matter? Is being able to recall a grocery list, even months after committing it to memory, worth much in the real world? While writing his book, Foer actually won the 2006 National Memory Championship. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially because he was a complete novice at the outset. I remember how proud I felt when I triumphed over a bevy of more experienced athletes in a spoon hanging contest during a visit to Magic Waters in 1987-88 (or thereabouts), but only a few diehard fans even remember my near Guiness-level accomplishment.** So does having a great memory for details carry any currency in a world with Google? A recent study suggests that Google does impact how we store memories (click here for more information – not that you’re likely to retain much of it), but does it really matter? What do you think folks?

* Foer’s brother Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer whose books include Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which I enjoyed as well.

** Drawers are to spoon hanging what Google is to memory.

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4 Responses to “Do decorators have the best memories?”

  1. Finally got to Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” which certainly sees the google-extended mind as a loss or even a threat. Now onto Gleick’s “The Information.” Haven’t finished but he seems to be heading in the direction of external cognitive extenders as freeing up new creative capacity. Somehow helpful to be reminded that every technology has been regarded with suspicion along the way!!

  2. Hi Heather, thanks for commenting. I’m also now reading The Information. What do you think of it?

  3. Heather Hancock 19. Jul, 2011 at 11:23 am

    funny. I’m having a meta-technology response to “The Information” right now: I’m reading it on my kindle for Iphone app and I feel an extreme need for a good old fashioned physical book as I try to absorb this huge amount of (fascinating) content. I’ll let you know as soon as I get my hands on a hard copy! (I love that thing about how initially writing had no spaces between individual words–it parelleled connected speech and the cognitive demands were huge as people had to decode the individual word boundaries).

  4. I’m popping over to the States (alas, Syracuse NY, not the Windy City)next week so I will add this book to my list of potential purchases. Probably Barnes and Noble will have a copy…

    I use my visuo-spatial memory to sort out tutoring materials, assignments and invoices for my 6 students. Tuesday’s student has the purple briefcase, Wednesday’s is in the gray backpack, Thursday’s 3 students are in the yellow and white tote bag by maker “KGB”, and Friday’s student is in the green and white tote. So in answer to your question, I think decorators DO have the best memories!