To be honest, I probably should have read the description of this book, or even the subtitle, a little more closely before I picked it up to read. Had I done so, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. See, I thought I was going to get a book about machine learning, which is something that I’ve been meaning to study in more detail, and instead I got a mediocre self-help book about tricks to improve memory.
Despite that realization within the first page, I decided to continue reading, because I already had opened the book, it looked to be a short, quick read, and I wouldn’t mind improving my ability to memorize things. Unfortunately, I found little new and even less of insight in Unlimited Memory. I don’t generally consider that I am particularly adept at rote memorization, despite coming to acknowledge in my old age that there is merit to such memorization – in fact, one of the few points about which I agreed in the book was that memorization is still a relevant and useful ability in the age of internet search engines – but none of the tips and techniques pitched in the book were both new and helpful.
Some tips, like coming up with silly rhymes, associating facts with previously stored knowledge, and so forth, are certainly valid, but they are things I’ve been using to help memorize for decades. You know why I can still tell you exactly who Vasco de Gama was, and what he did, even though it’s been so many years since I took that class? Because “Vasco de Gama got spices for his mama while riding on a llama.” Silly, yes, but that’s kind of the whole point. Our brains tend to remember things that are different, unique, and distinctive better than they do things that appear just like everything else. Put de Gama’s name in a list of Age of Exploration explorers, and it disappears. Put it into a silly rhyme, and suddenly it sticks with you long after it stopped being necessary for the test.
Other techniques, like the spatial mapping technique, are things that I knew about and have tried previously, but with which I have not found success. For me, that particular technique, and its relatives, requires me to spend so much time memorizing the subject matter in the first place that by the time I get around to putting it in a car or a room or a spaceship, I no longer need such a memory crutch. Which brings me to one of my two main critiques about this book – that these memory techniques are not as broadly applicable as the author claims. It’s one thing to use these tools to memorize lists, trivia, or names (like in the de Gama story above), but I find that there’s little utility in them for addressing more complex topics. If I’m studying something technical, like a research paper on dark matter, just using memory techniques to remember a list of particle names is essentially useless. By the time that I’ve wrestled with the concepts and reframed them and actually arrived at an understanding of them, memorization is beside the point: I’ve memorized what I needed to in the process of achieving understanding. Thus, many of the memorization techniques become useless, because in order for them to be useful for the sorts of matters I’m looking to memorize, I have to study the material so long before I can apply them that I no longer need to apply them.
My second complaint about this book is more philosophical. The author asserts that these techniques will allow anyone to become a champion memorizer, and that there is no such thing as people being innately “good” or “bad” at something like memorization. While there is some truth to that, and I certainly don’t argue with the claim that anyone can improve their memory, and by no means do I advocate for fatalism, I would like to put out there that there are neurological differences between people that will make these techniques more or less effective. This is something that I’ve struggled with, and I had an interesting discussion with a friend about it a few months back. We are perfectly ready to accept that some people are naturally taller, or naturally more athletic, or other physical traits, but I, for one, find it more challenging to think of our neurology in the same way. Even if I dedicated myself entirely to learning a playing a basketball, I would never be a great basketball player: I’m not tall enough, and my physiology is wrong for the task. Without getting too far into the nature versus nurture debate, those are factors over which I have no control. Logically, and biologically, our brains must be similar. So claiming that a set of memorization techniques will improve everyones’ memories equally is invalid. If we could reduce memorization to a simple quantification like we do height, we would almost certainly find that some people are “taller” than others, and no amount of practice at mental jumping will change that fact.
If the techniques to which I alluded in this post are new to you, then you might want to consider giving Unlimited Memory a try. However, if you’re already familiar with some memorization techniques, you probably won’t glean a lot of new insight from the book. You’d be better off spending that time working to memorize something important. Speaking of which, what was I about to say?