Alex’s magnum opus to date is Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, & the Hidden Powers of the Mind. It’s a fascinating journey into the art and science of mental gymnastics, mind manipulation, misdirection, and the history of magic. Alex and I met in 2012 at his book launch and enjoyed exuberant conversation afterward over beer. He was kind enough to rematerialize for this blog.
Brent: How have memorization techniques helped you?
Alex: I've used memorization techniques in two main areas: physics and magic. When I was in physics graduate school, I had to memorize a lot of concepts and equations. I wasn't smart enough to derive everything during the exams like some kids.
Brent: That’s the best way to memorize abstract concepts—use your imagination to transform them into concrete images and link them together.
Alex: I found that the more associations I could draw connecting different ideas, the easier they were to remember.
Brent: What about in the world of magic?
Alex: In magic, I do a lot of memorized deck work. To memorize decks, I use the Method of Loci. I can memorize the orders of multiple decks of cards in a relatively short span of time—and retain them in memory almost indefinitely.
Brent: Let’s back up a little bit. Before you can memorize the order of the decks, you need to have an easy-to-picture graphic representation for each card. There’s a variety of systems out there. As a linguistics nut, I favor the method championed by the great memory expert Harry Lorayne. As you surely know, he proposed assigning phonetic values to the suit and value, so all the club cards begin with a “c,” the diamonds with a “d,” etc.
Alex: That definitely works. I made up my own associations using real and imaginary people and objects and practiced endlessly to develop immediate recall.
Brent: Do you use yourself as one of the cards?
Alex: Yes, as a matter of fact! I am the seven of hearts.
Brent: I’d say that makes you lucky and self-loving, a winning combination. Back to the Method of Loci, this was a technique pioneered by the Ancient Greeks. One would associate a piece of sequential information—a list, say, or a succession of ideas in a speech—and connect each in some creative way to a series of rooms. Doing a mental walk-through helps you retrieve the ideas in order. It’s where we get the expression “in the first place, in the second place, etc.” That’s what you do to memorize the order of a deck of cards.
Alex: I've found this to be an incredibly powerful and remarkably robust technique. I highly recommend trying this technique out—it can be used to memorize just about anything—if only for the joy of seeing what your mind can accomplish.
Brent: No question. I’ve used it to remember all the US Presidents, Oscar-winning Best Pictures, and other information, both useful and trivial. It’s like doing interval training for mental agility.
Alex: It’s great to meet a fellow mnemonist! I’m glad you enjoyed my book!
Brent: Thanks for talking with me, Alex. Your enthusiasm is infectious.
Fooling Houdini is one of my favorite books dealing with psychology and brain science, creative thinking, improvisation and play, and other related topics. See the complete list on the resources page.