Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds). Michael Jackson (king of hearts) has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). Rhea Perlman, diminutive Cheers bartendress (and queen of spades), has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol (seven of clubs) in a highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress (three of clubs).
This tawdry tableau, which I’m not proud to commit to the page, goes a long way toward explaining the unlikely spot I find myself in at the moment. Sitting to my left is Ram Kolli, an unshaven twenty-five-year-old business consultant from Richmond, Virginia, who is also the defending United States memory champion. To my right is the muzzle of a television camera from a national cable network. Spread out behind me, where I can’t see them and they can’t disturb me, are about a hundred spectators and a pair of TV commentators offering play-by-play analysis. One is a blow-dried veteran boxing announcer named Kenny Rice, whose gravelly, bedtime voice can’t conceal the fact that he seems bewildered by this jamboree of nerds. The other is the Pelé of U.S. memory sport, a bearded forty-three-year-old chemical engineer and four-time national champion from Fayetteville, North Carolina, named Scott Hagwood. In the corner of the room sits the object of my affection: a kitschy two-tiered trophy consisting of a silver hand with gold nail polish brandishing a royal flush, and, in a patriotic flourish, three bald eagles perched just below. It’s nearly as tall as my two-year-old niece (and lighter than most of her stuffed animals).
The audience has been asked not to take any flash photographs and to maintain total silence. Not that Ram or I could possibly hear them. Both of us are wearing earplugs. I’ve also got on a pair of industrialstrength earmuffs that look like they belong on an aircraft carrier deckhand (because in the heat of a memory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough). My eyes are closed. On a table in front of me, lying facedown between my hands, are two shuffled decks of playing cards. In a moment, the chief arbiter will click a stopwatch and I will have five minutes to memorize the order of both decks.
The unlikely story of how I ended up in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship, stock-still and sweating profusely, begins a year earlier on a snowy highway in central Pennsylvania. I had been driving from my home in Washington, D.C., to the Lehigh Valley to do an interview for Discover magazine with a theoretical physicist at Kutztown University, who had invented a vacuum chamber device that was supposed to pop the world’s largest popcorn. My route took me through York, Pennsylvania, home of the Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum. I thought that sounded like something I didn’t want to die without having seen. And I had an hour to kill.
As it turned out, the Hall of Fame was little more than a sterile collection of old photographs and memorabilia displayed on the ground floor of the corporate offices of the nation’s largest barbell manufacturer. Museologically, it was crap. But it’s where I first saw a black-and-white photo of Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, a hulking five-foot-four Jewish-American strongman who had earned his nickname in the 1920s by performing such inspiring feats as biting quarters in half and lying on a bed of nails while a fourteen-man Dixieland band played on his chest. He once changed all four tires on a car without any tools. A caption next to the photo billed Greenstein as “the strongest man in the world.”
Staring at that photo, I thought it would be pretty interesting if the world’s strongest person ever got to meet the world’s smartest person. The Mighty Atom and Einstein, arms wrapped around each other: an epic juxtaposition of muscle and mind. A neat photo to hang above my desk, at least. I wondered if it had ever been taken. When I got home, I did a little Googling. The world’s strongest person was pretty easy to find: His name was Mariusz Pudzianowski. He lived in Biała Rawska, Poland, and could deadlift 924 pounds (about thirty of my nieces).
The world’s smartest person, on the other hand, was not so easily identified. I typed in “highest IQ,” “intelligence champion,” “smartest in the world.” I learned that there was someone in New York City with an IQ of 228, and a chess player in Hungary who once played fifty-two simultaneous blindfolded games. There was an Indian woman who could calculate the twenty-third root of a two-hundred-digit number in her head in fifty seconds, and someone else who could solve a fourdimensional Rubik’s cube, whatever that is. And of course there were plenty of more obvious Stephen Hawking types of candidates. Brains are notoriously trickier to quantify than brawn.
In the course of my Googling, though, I did discover one intriguing candidate who was, if not the smartest person in the world, at least some kind of freakish genius. His name was Ben Pridmore, and he could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour and—to impress those of us with a more humanist bent—any poem handed to him. He was the reigning world memory champion.
Over the next few days, my brain kept returning to Ben Pridmore’s. My own memory was average at best. Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); the food in the oven; that it’s “its” and not “it’s”; my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day; the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar (ouch); my friends’ phone numbers; why I just opened the fridge; to plug in my cell phone; the name of President Bush’s chief of staff; the order of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops; which year the Redskins last won the Super Bowl; to put the toilet seat down.
Ben Pridmore, on the other hand, could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in thirty-two seconds. In five minutes he could permanently commit to memory what happened on ninety-six different historical dates. The man knew fifty thousand digits of pi. What was not to envy? I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten. Putting aside for a moment the fact that he was temporarily unemployed, how much more productive must Ben Pridmore be?
Every day there seems to be more to remember: more names, more passwords, more appointments. With a memory like Ben Pridmore’s, I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better. Our culture constantly inundates us with new information, and yet our brains capture so little of it. Most just goes in one ear and out the other. If the point of reading were simply to retain knowledge, it would probably be the single least efficient activity I engage in. I can spend a half dozen hours reading a book and then have only a foggy notion of what it was about. All those facts and anecdotes, even the stuff interesting enough to be worth underlining, have a habit of briefly making an impression on me and then disappearing into who knows where. There are books on my shelf that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.
What would it mean to have all that otherwise-lost knowledge at my fingertips? I couldn’t help but think that it would make me more persuasive, more confident, and, in some fundamental sense, smarter. Certainly I’d be a better journalist, friend, and boyfriend. But more than that, I imagined that having a memory like Ben Pridmore’s would make me an altogether more attentive, perhaps even wiser, person. To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. Surely some of the forgetting that seems to plague us is healthy and necessary. If I didn’t forget so many of the dumb things I’ve done, I’d probably be unbearably neurotic. But how many worthwhile ideas have gone unthought and connections unmade because of my memory’s shortcomings?
I kept returning to something Ben Pridmore said in a newspaper interview, which made me ponder just how different his memory and my own might really be. “It’s all about technique and understanding how the memory works,” he told the reporter. “Anyone could do it, really.”
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