Do Visual Learners Have Better Memories?

Right now I’m reading Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. It’s one man’s story about spending a year improving his memory after getting inspired by seeing the World Memory Championship competition. In this competition people perform amazing feats of memory like rapidly learning entire poems, memorizing the order of all of the cards in a deck and memorizing very long random numbers. The story is about Foer’s experience with this and through that story he teaches the reader about the history of memory training (very interesting!) and the basic techniques used by the memory champs to improve their memories.

The book is a good one. I’d recommend it.

Naturally, it’s got me thinking a lot about memory. The basic technique that Foer explains in the book, the mnemonic technique, is one that I’ve heard about many times before. (Coincidentally I just started watching The Mentalist and the main character describes the same technique in one of the few few episodes of season one.) The gist of it is that if you want to remember a series of things then you need to visualize them and visualize yourself placing them throughout a well-remembered place that you’re familiar with.

For example, let’s say that I want to remember the words “dog” and “bacon” and “breakfast” in that order. I might visualize my childhood home and picture myself greeting my childhood dog at the door. Then I go in and the first room I see is the kitchen where I picture a sizzling pan of bacon. To remember breakfast, the first thing that comes to mind is Breakfast at Tiffany’s so then I picture Audrey Hepburn sitting at my parents’ kitchen table. Of course, the technique is a little more detailed than that and it is used to remember much longer lists than three-item lists but that’s the basic idea of it. Like I said, it’s a technique I’ve heard mentioned many times before and it’s one that has been proven to work to help people remember things.

And yet, I wonder if it’s right for me. The main problem that I’m running into as I think about this is that I am absolutely not a visual person at all. This is something that I always knew about myself but my friendship with a visual artist named Anna has really made it clear to me over time because she is so visual and I am so word-based. I’ll tell you about two specific experiences with her that come to mind. First, let me tell you about a night that we got together with my friend Kelly to do some cooking at my house. I had picked up a really interesting book on Zen-based cooking ideas and that was what I was using to make my dishes. I was excited about it. When I showed it to Anna, the first thing she said was, “where are the pictures of the food?” I hadn’t even noticed that the recipes had no pictures or for that matter that this was unusual for a cookbook. I don’t think I ever even look at the photos of food in a cookbook even though I’ve noticed, since she pointed it out, that almost all cookbooks are image-based. Hm.

The other time I want to tell you about is when I tried to learn basic drawing techniques from Anna. She’s a terrific artist and I enjoy her work very much. And I’ve always wanted to be able to draw better. The class was fun. But it was challenging for me, not because I can’t draw but because I simply do not see things the way that you need to see them to be able to draw them realistically. Anna put a white egg on a white piece of paper and put a light on it to create shadows. We were to draw the egg using the light and dark spaces to create what we saw on our pages. It was difficult for me because what I saw was white on white. I saw an egg. That’s all. As Anna pointed out that this part was a shade darker or that was a shade lighter, I could see it, but when she moved away and left me to it I could hardly pick any of that out on my own. I recall asking her if she sees the entire world like this all of the time and she said that she usually does. It seemed to me like an overwhelming way to go through the world. Of course, I do realize that that’s just how she sees it and it doesn’t overwhelm her at all but trying to see shapes and shadows and lines is difficult for me so it seems draining from my perspective.

There are many more examples of this in my life. I am far more interested in the story behind something than the image itself. I read really fast and I think part of the reason is because I’m reading to get to the point of the story, not picturing every little thing the writer has etched into words. In fact, I get kind of annoyed by writing that has flowery language designed to create a visual image, especially if it doesn’t advance the story.

I remember having trouble sleeping when I was a kid. My dad told me on more than one occasion to count sheep. I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to picture sheep and count them. The whole idea made no sense to me. If I’d been told to lay there and create a story in my head about a sheep’s life then maybe I could have relaxed and drifted into slumber but just trying to picture sheep visually was an almost impossible task.

Now this is not to say that I don’t appreciate beauty. I like sunsets just as much as anyone. I enjoy looking at art pieces. But when it boils down to it, I remain more interested in the words and thoughts and ideas of most things than I do in just looking at them. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I can easily play TV in the background while I do other things and not feel like I missed something because I wasn’t looking at the screen. And it’s certainly why movies that are built primarily on what you see (action flicks, silent films) almost never interest me.

Bringing this back to the original topic, I’ve always felt like I have a fairly bad memory. I used to keep scrapbooks obsessively and I half-joked that it was because I wouldn’t remember anything without those pictures to tell me what I did. In recent years, I’ve come to realize that my bad memory is due mostly to the fact that I don’t pay attention to a lot of stuff around me. I am often too wrapped up in my own thoughts about something to even take in the visual cues and see what’s in front of me. And because of that, I wonder if I’m doomed to have a bad memory.

Now, I do think that it’s possible that the mnemonic device for remembering things could be useful for me. When I do have a visual picture of something, I definitely remember it more clearly. That’s why the scrapbooks work – I see something visually and remember the whole story of what I did where and with whom. And if I stretch my brain hard enough to assign a picture to words and drop them in my memory place then I’ll probably remember them. I don’t doubt that. But here’s the thing… trying to come up with an image and then actually know where to place it is extremely difficult for me.

The thing with these “memory places” is that you’re supposed to have a bunch of them. So if I used my childhood home for that “dog”, “bacon”, “breakfast” list then I’d need to use a different memory place for my next list. That way every time I go to the childhood home in my mind, that first list will resurface. And every time I mentally go to the next place the next thing will surface. But to come up with multiple memory places is in itself very difficult for me because I don’t visually take in a lot of places. So for example the techniques in the book recommend thinking first of the “easy” places like your normal walk home. I’ve lived on my same block for two years and I’d have trouble telling you which stores or landmarks are there, especially in any given order. In order to be able to use this as a memory place, I’d first have to memorize that. It seems like a lot of work.

I’m not sure what my thoughts are at this point on the value of memory. The book talks about how before books all knowledge was passed on orally and had to be remembered so memory was really important to learning, personal ethics, culture, traditions, etc. Now we have everything at the tip of our fingers so why bother remembering it? I think that there’s some value to the idea that having a memory bank to tap into allows you a broader reference for things and there’s wisdom available to you as a result. I certainly wish I’d remember a fraction of what I read! But I also am really glad to live in a time when information is at my fingertips and I don’t have to memorize it to utilize it.

I guess I think that if I wanted to work harder to take things in differently and work at remembering them then I could, using a variety of techniques including the mnemonic option. And I think there’s some value to improving your memory. But it feels like a lot of hard work to me for very little reward personally. So while I’m really curious whether more visual people have better natural memories, I’m not really concerned with exploring my personal memory too much more at this time.

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