I’ve recently joined my local Toastmasters club, and for my first series of speeches, I want to focus on — what else? — memory! I thought you might enjoy reading these as I go.
(If I get a decent portable recorder, who knows, this could turn into a podcast. Of course, a memory guy can’t bring up notes, and it’s not worth memorizing word-for-word, so what I actually say tends to turn out rather different.)
Mr. Toastmaster, Ladies and Gentlemen —
I have good news for you tonight. You can remember anything you want to. Anything. You can remember anything you want.
Anything? you say.
But, Bill, you say. This is me we’re talking about. When I walk into the house, my keys somehow vanish out of my pocket, and teleport themselves behind a random piece of furniture, on the other side of the house. If someone asks me for a glass of milk, I get up to get it, because I am super nice, and then I come back with a piece of pie. For myself. And I don’t understand what they’re mad about.
Surely, Bill, other people might be able to remember anything, but not me.
Well, I disagree. I know that you, yes, you, can remember anything you want to. I’m going to show you how to remember, step by step, over my series of Toastmaster speeches here. For tonight, I want to convince you of one simple fact: your memory is already amazing.
Your memory, right now, is amazing.
How do I know? How can I say that with such assurance, about every single person listening to me right now?
Simple. You understand what I’m saying.
Right now, I’m spewing this stream of random sounds, and you are parsing it so fast that you don’t even realize you’re doing it! You’re drawing on a memory bank of tens of thousands of words, plus thousands more chunks of phrases, variations, remembered sentences. You’re snapping these sounds into meaning faster than I can get them out of my mouth.
How is this not amazing? If you understand language, you have an amazing memory.
But your talents go further. People. You have memorized a vast database of people.
Now wait — I know what you’re thinking. You’re bad with names. Join the club. Do you know how many studies they’ve done on people forgetting names? It’s the most common memory complaint known to man.
But have you ever thought of it the other way around? Have you ever thought about all the people you do know? You weave your way through a social labyrinth. You’ve amassed unthinkable amounts of data on everyone you know — family, relatives, co-workers, clients, neighbors, people at church, people at the post office. You know how they talk, how they dress, what they smell like. You’ve internalized whole flow charts of what to bring up with him, what not to bring up with her, what configurations of acquaintances to avoid at all costs.
Why do you think Thanksgiving dinner can be so insane? Everyone’s trying to manage all this information simultaneously. And then they have the nerve to complain about their memories.
Then there’s your memory for places. Sure, maybe you get lost once in awhile. And you do lose those keys. Well, let me ask you — where’s your bed? How about your kitchen stove? See?
What, that was too obvious? Okay, close your eyes, imagine your bed, and now start looking around your room. Where’s the dresser? What’s in the top drawer of the dresser? For every one item that you misplace, you have literally hundreds of items that are neatly filed away in your mental model.
And that’s just your house. Don’t even get me started on all the other places in your life. We take place memory for granted, but it’s one more fascinating way that your memory is amazing.
Language, people, and places. These three kinds of memory may seem commonplace, but just because almost everyone can do it doesn’t mean it’s not amazing.
And I do mean almost. Two of my brothers are autistic. When I look at them, I realize even more that these everyday skills are truly complex beyond imagining.
The paradox of memory is that we only notice it when it doesn’t work. Whatever it is you keep forgetting, it’s tiny, it’s a tiny problem compared to the overwhelming mass of “ordinary” material, and maybe some not so ordinary material, that you’ve already mastered.
You can remember anything you want, because your memory is already amazing.
(Compare this to my previous article on your amazing memory.)