THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 3

Subject:   Memory – Simonides’ Memory Palace

Event:  Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein published, 2011

In 2005, journalist Joshua Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championships as a part of his research to find the world’s smartest person.  There he became mesmerized, watching “memory athletes” demonstrate prodigious feats of recall, such as memorizing 27 decks of shuffled playing cards.  Foer discovered that the secret to a great memory was not IQ; instead, it was strategy and focus. Foer found the competition and the strategies so fascinating that the next year he participated himself — and won.

File:Moonwalking with einstein.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

Foer chronicled his experiences in his book Moonwalking With Einstein, which was published on this day in 2011.  One specific method he highlights is known as the method of loci, which capitalizes on the brain’s especially strong ability to navigate spatial environments and visualize specific images.  For example, think of how easy it would be for you to draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in.  Even though you never consciously tried to remember the layout, you could probably draw it easily from memory and even recall the exact layout of each piece of furniture.

The method of loci is also known as the memory palace method.  It can be employed, for example, for memorizing a speech by transforming the speech’s key concepts into concrete images.  These images are then placed in the mental floor plan of the speaker’s memory palace.  In addition to making the objects you imagine distinctive, it also helps to make them outrageously absurd.  Doing this makes the images more memorable and more vivid.

For example, say you were giving a speech on the topic of the importance of education and you plan to open with a quotation by Socrates.  To remember this, you might imagine the toga-clad Socrates standing on your front porch with a Bic lighter and an empty bedpan on his head; this might help you remember your opening quotation:  “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  The next point in your speech can then be found based on an image that you find in your living room as you walk through your memory palace’s front door.

As Foer explains in his book, strategies like the memory palace are nothing new; instead, they were developed over two thousand years ago: “Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today” (1).

In 55 B.C., for example, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote a book called De Oratore where he outlined the strategies of the ideal orator.  It’s in this book where Cicero tells the story of the origin of the memory palace technique, which began with a dramatic near-death experience by Simonides, a Greek lyric poet:

There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.

The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it. (2)

Much has changed since Simonides’ time, but the human brain is still very much the same, and we should do what we can to remember how effective the memory palace is for helping us to remember.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the memory palace, and how can it be employed to memorize a speech?

Challenge – Your Brain Blueprint:  Draw the floorplan of the home you are most familiar with.  Consider what strange things you might furnish our memory palace with so that you can use it the next time you need to memorize something.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 3, 1845:  On this day, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.  This day we should remember the Florida effect, a psychological phenomena that reaches far beyond the borders of the Sunshine state.  (See Thinker’s Almanac – January 9)

-March 3, 1847:  Today is the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell who not only invented the telephone but also said the first words on the telephone on March 10, 1876:  “Mr. Watson — come here, I want to see you.”  He also said something profound about the power of attention:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Sources: 

1-Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 

2-Simonides of Ceos.”  The Art of Memory Blog 24 Nov. 2010.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 24

Subject:  Distillation and Simplicity – The Two Things Game

Event:  “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things,” 2012

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. -Albert Einstein

On this day in 2012, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled, “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.”

The column begins with an anecdote about the economist Glen Whitman.  In 2002, Whitman was sitting in a bar and struck up a conversation with a stranger.  Upon discovering that Whitman was an economist, the stranger asked, “So, what are the Two Things about economics?”  Whitman wasn’t sure what he meant by “Two Things” so he asked for clarification.  The stranger replied:  “You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

Getting the picture, Whitman thought for a moment and replied with his Two Things about economics:  “One: incentives matter. Two: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

That brief conversation in a bar in 2002 began Whitman’s quest for other Two Things from other fields, such as philosophy, marketing, finance, and computer science.  The idea behind the Two Things game is to distill and to simplify.  To do this experts must re-examine what they know and go back to basics.  This helps them see their field with new eyes.   Experts within a single field seldom agree on their Two Things; nevertheless, what they come up with is always interesting and illuminating, both to insiders and to outsiders.

At his website, Whitman has collected numerous examples by posing the Two Things question.  Here are a few examples of the answers he’s gotten from various fields and areas of expertise:

The Two Other Things about Marketing:

-Find out who is buying your product.

-Find more buyers like them.

The Two Things about Advertising:

– Get people’s attention

– Overwhelm them with charm.

Two Things about Trial Lawyering:

– 90% is just showing up (borrowed from Woody Allen’s philosophy of life).

– When you are winning, keep your mouth shut.

The Two Things about Neuroscience:

-Neurons strengthen or weaken signal strength between connected synapses.

-If you think you’ve found the part of the brain that controls _________, you’re probably wrong.

The Two Things about Writing:

– Include what’s necessary.

– Leave everything else out.

The Two Things about Editing:

– Know the rules.

– Pay attention. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Two Things Game, and why do people play it?

Challenge –  Two Things Game:  What would you say is the area or field in which you have the most expertise?  What are the two things that people need to know about that area or field?  Select an academic discipline, an area of interest (such as a hobby, sport, or pastime), a profession, a specific person, place, thing, or idea that you know well.  Then determine what the Two Things are that everyone needs to know about it.  Assume that your audience knows little about your topic, and write an explanation that goes with each of your two things. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 24, 1955:  Steve Jobs was born on this day. He said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Sources:

1-Burkeman, Oliver. “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.” The Guardian 24 February 2012.

2-The Two Things by Glen Whitman

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 20

Subject:  Epistemology – The Columbo Method

Event:  Premiere of the television detective drama Columbo, 1968.

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. -Thomas Berger

Imagine if the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became the lead in a new detective television series.  It’s not that far of a stretch when you consider that Socrates was consumed by the same thing that all television detectives are.  Like Socrates, they are on an epistemological quest for knowledge, more specifically, knowledge that will lead them to the truth.  

Socrates used an analogy to describe the difference between unsound truth and sound truth.  He imagined two beautiful statues by the sculptor Daedalus.  The unsound truth, which came about via intuition, is like a statue placed precariously atop a pillar.  The first strong wind that comes along will knock it over.  The sound truth, however, is anchored to the ground by tethering cables, making it impervious to even gale-force winds.  For Socrates, the test of differentiating the unsound truth from the sound truth was to determine which one stood up under the scrutiny of questioning (1).

When we think of Socrates today, we probably think of his characteristic toga, and we probably also think about his characteristic Socratic method of questioning.

File:Columbo Peter Falk 1973.JPG
Peter Falk as Columbo (Wikimedia Common)

Another character known for his characteristic dress and method is the television detective Columbo.  Instead of a toga, he wore a raincoat.  Like Socrates, he valued questioning, but he added a wrinkle that made his method memorable and particularly effective for fighting crime.

The television show Columbo — which premiered on this day in 1968 — had a unique template.  Instead of following the typical “whodunnit” structure of traditional detective dramas, the Columbo writers inverted the template, beginning each episode by making the audience eye-witnesses to the crime being committed, which included knowing the identity of the perpetrator.  Instead of being a “whodunit,” Columbo followed the “howcatchem” format.  After seeing the crime committed before their eyes, the audience then got to see the cigar-smoking, raincoat-clad detective Columbo sniff out the trail of clues until he found the guilty party.

Like Socrates, an essential element of Colombo’s method was questions; however, his approach was a bit more indirect. It begins with an understanding of the importance of first and last impressions. Psychologists who study memory highlight the serial position effect and our tendency to recall best what is presented first (primacy effect) and what is presented last (recency effect). 

Columbo’s method began with a first impression that was deliberately crafted to disarm a suspect.  His disheveled appearance and his seemingly absent-minded manner put the suspect at ease, and his opening questions were always casual, respectful, and non-threatening, designed to get the suspect talking about things other than homicide.   

Columbo’s final interactions with a suspect were also deliberately designed to leave an impression.  Just as he appeared to be finishing his meeting and turning to leave, he would turn back around and say, “There’s just one more thing.”  Having thought that their interaction with the detective had concluded, the suspect would be caught off guard   At this point Columbo would point out facts from the case that appeared to be in conflict.  Instead of presenting this conflict in an accusatory manner, he would state it in a way that was self-deprecating, rubbing his head and expressing his own confusion, appearing to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. He would then deliver the final probing question which the suspect — being disarmed by Columbo’s odd manner — would answer in a careless, less than thoughtful way, often revealing something important (2).

In one episode called “How to Dial a Murder,” one suspect, who happened to be a psychologist, saw through Columbo’s method, saying, “You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. . . . You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a minefield”(3).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Columbo method, and how does it differ from the Socratic method?

Challenge – That is the Question:  Do a search for quotations about “questions.”  Select one quotation that you like, and write a paragraph explaining why you think the quotation is an important one.

Sources:

1-de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy.  New York:  Vintage International, 2000.

2-”The Columbo Technique.”  Changing Minds.

3-Griffiths, Mark D. ”The Psychology of Columbo.” Psychology Today, 20 Feb. 2018.