I had a thought while listening to Cal Newport about memorizing sequences of numbers.
This transformation into a world-class mental athlete was rapid, but not unprecedented. In 2006, the American science writer Joshua Foer won the USA Memory Championship after only a year of (intense) training—a journey he chronicled in his 2011 bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein. But what’s important to us about Kilov’s story is what happened to his academic performance during this period of intensive memory development. While training his brain, he went from a struggling student with attention deficit disorder to graduating from a demanding Australian university with first-class honors. He was soon accepted into the PhD program at one of the country’s top universities, where he currently studies under a renowned philosopher.
One explanation for this transformation comes from research led by Henry Roediger, who runs the Memory Lab at the University of Washington in Saint Louis. In 2014, Roediger and his collaborators sent a team, equipped with a battery of cognitive tests, to the Extreme Memory Tournament held in San Diego. They wanted to understand what differentiated these elite memorizers from the population at large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.
A side effect of memory training, in other words, is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate. This ability can then be fruitfully applied to any task demanding deep work. Daniel Kilov, we can therefore conjecture, didn’t become a star student because of his award-winning memory; it was instead his quest to improve this memory that (incidentally) gave him the deep work edge needed to thrive academically.
The strategy described here asks you to replicate a key piece of Kilov’s training, and therefore gain some of the same improvements to your concentration. In particular, it asks you to learn a standard but quite impressive skill in the repertoire of most mental athletes: the ability to memorize a shuffled deck of cards.-Cal Newport, Deep Work, page 103
This is particularly interesting to those of us cursed with an artistic personality, because the highs comes with significant downsides in functioning.
The inability to concentrate comes from the artistry.
Ah, it makes sense, Aeoli
I have that problem too.
Whereas I used to have insane focus.
i can have lots of focus, but only for things i actually care about
It’s a matter of time horizons.
I was an awful student in high school because I didn’t think it mattered.
But if I decided “this matters in the long term, I’m going to concentrate on it” then I did concentrate on it.
Nowadays my brain is broken so that I can’t even concentrate on things that I know matter but aren’t immediately exciting, because my brain wants to go off on tangents.
the same here
The nice thing is that with age comes cunning, so I’m much better at tricking myself into caring about things.
i just keep discovering weird semi useless things to focus on short term
So now I’m a straight-A student.
Also, you learn how to learn…and how your memory works etc
Newport goes on to say that we’re best at remembering visual “scenes” but I think we’re best at remembering visually presented stories based on Jungian archetypes. A way of testing this would be to translate a number sequence into a story, and see how well we can parse it and remember it, and then see how well this scales. It’s possible we can only do this up to, say, the Dunbar number. Whereas visual memory may be more or less infinite.
The cipher that makes the most sense to me is to fill in a mad lib story outline, like so:
$Character went to $Location, did $Action and got $Item.
Then you could fill in each type from a numbered list, e.g. (from Tarot cards)
- High priestess
- Hanged man
Here’s the sample mad lib I wrote for a 10-digit number:
$Character goes to $Place with $Item and meets $Character2 who reacts with $Emotion and poses $Event/Challenge with $Character3 at $Place2. This results in $Outcome and the original item is traded for $Item2.
The two ways I thought of to populate the list of mnemonics were Tarot cards and TV Tropes. TV Tropes has the benefit of a huge number of pages, so you could potentially scale each list up to two-digit numbers by memorizing a list of 100 character types, item types, location types, etc. That said, I’d want it to be optimized for 10-digit phone numbers since that’s what we have in the old USA. Probably best to do Tarot for the single-digit version, and extend it to 2 digits with TV Tropes.
I suppose a less dramatic version of this would be to describe quotidian things like “Mom went to the gas station and picked up a loaf of bread.”
Quotidian-style mad-lib for memorizing sequences:
$Character went by $Conveyance to the $Location and got $Item. They returned to $Room where they met $Character2, who was holding $Item2 and feeling $Emotion about $Character3 experiencing $MajorLifeEvent.