kottke.org posts about memory

Magnus Carlsen’s Remarkable Memory

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2021

Watch as David Howell sets up several historical chess positions and quizzes world champion Magnus Carlsen on them. Spoiler alert: he knows them all. The one he gets in just four moves after opening is just…otherworldly.

Carlsen is one of a number of world class performers that have prodigious memory skills. See also LeBron James Has a Photographic Memory, Xavi Hernández identifying goals he scored (and the final scores of those matches), Aaron Rodgers’ memory of his significant plays, and Iker Casillas remembers the score of every match he’s played. (via robin sloan)

Update: Former world champion Garry Kasparov:

I was tested similarly in my world championship days, and yes, most Grandmasters can identify thousands of games and positions. It’s not trivial, but, as Magnus said, it’s our job! But his serious interest in the past (human!) games is also a competitive advantage.

Kasparov once gave an impressive public exhibition of this skill. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Monk Hacks: Dealing With Distraction in Late Antiquity

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019


For monks, concentration wasn’t just a practical necessity, but a spiritual discipline. Consequently, they spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of distraction and how to fight it.

Sometimes [monks] accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment - let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat.

Actually, I can think of several other things John Cassian would have done if he had seen a smartphone, but let’s not get off track. Sure. He’d have figured out we’d have some problems.

Here’s a paradox: monks and nuns weren’t all about that austerity, at least cognitively. Instead, they’d go full tilt into embracing the wild, distracting powers of the mind, but trying to harness them for useful purposes.

Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them. Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate. But if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better - strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.

My favorite book about this is Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory; it’s more about the Renaissance than the height of the monastic period, but focuses on the history and artistry of these various mnemonic devices, while doubling as a kind of cultural history of the mind.

Why do we forget most of what we read and watch?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Do you remember the plots of books you read and movies you watch, even months later? I rarely do, so Julie Beck’s piece Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read really hit me square in the forehead this morning (even though I will likely forget having read it next week). Why do we forget all of this stuff we’re constantly consuming? Part of the reason is that we don’t need to:

In the internet age, recall memory — the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind — has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, Horvath says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it.

One of the earliest articulations of the internet’s value in aiding memory was Cory Doctorow’s piece about how Boing Boing had become his “outboard brain”.

The upshot is that operating Boing Boing has not only given me a central repository of all of the fruits of my labors in the information fields, but it also has increased the volume and quality of the yield. I know more, find more, and understand better than I ever have, all because of Boing Boing.

The nuggets I’ve mined are at my instant disposal. I can use Blogger’s search interface to retrieve the stories I’ve posted with just a few keywords. While prepping a speech, writing a column, or working on a story, I will usually work with a browser window open to Blogger’s “Edit Your Blog” screen, cursor tabbed into the search field. I flip back and forth between my browser and my editor, entering a few keywords and instantly retrieving the details of some salient point — it’s my personal knowledge management system, annotated and augmented by my readers.

So hopefully by reading Beck’s piece critically and then writing about it here, I will be able to both remember it a little more on my own and also have placed it somewhere I can easily find again.

One of the relatively few kottke.org posts I remember without having to hunt around for it (which is ironic, considering) is this one about Dick Cavett and compartmentalized memory. Cavett had a really hard time remembering who his guests were on past shows.

A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

It’s the same with me, as I replied in that post:

If you were to ask me tonight what I’d posted to kottke.org today, I doubt I could tell you more than one or two items (out of the seven to nine items I post during a typical day). When I see friends outside of work, they sometimes remark on stuff I’ve posted recently and it usually takes me a few moments to remember what it is they’re referring to.

Rereading Cavett’s mention of “the live performer’s divided brain” got me thinking about how the way I produce kottke.org every day and lately how it feels more like a performance. I talked about this a little in that interview with NiemanLab:

The blog is half publication and half performance art, because when I wake up in the morning I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about. There’s no editorial calendar or anything. I go online and I see what’s there, I pick some stuff, and I do it, and at the end of the day, I’m done. I come up with a publication on the fly as a sort of performance.

So to sum up…The Aristocrats! (Wait, what were we talking about? I can’t remember…)

The Meeting That Never Happened

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2017

IDAC is an entertaining short film by Casimir Nozkowski that explores the social mores of the awkward youth and, after a twist in the story, the malleability of memory.

When I was leaving for college, my aunt Dana told me I had a cousin I’d never met who was matriculating in the same year as me. We shared classes and had friends in common but for some strange reason I never introduced myself. All during college, and then into the real world, through a decade of overlapping connections, we never met. This film is an examination of that hesitation and an attempt to understand why I never made the easiest connection in the world… until it was too late.

What if your mind’s eye is blind?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2016

Blake Ross is 30 years old and he just learned something about everyone else in the world: people can visualize things in their minds. Which is like, yeah, duh. But Ross has aphantasia, which essentially means that his mind’s eye is blind, that counting sheep means nothing to him.

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.

But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time — or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.

Understandably, this threw him for a bit of a loop.

—If I ask you to imagine a beach, how would you describe what happens in your mind?
—Uhh, I imagine a beach. What?
—Like, the idea of a beach. Right?
—Well, there are waves, sand. Umbrellas. It’s a relaxing picture. You okay?
—But it’s not actually a picture? There’s no visual component?
—Yes there is, in my mind. What the hell are you talking about?
—Is it in color?
—How often do your thoughts have a visual element?
—A thousand times a day?
—Oh my God.

The more I read his story though, the more I started wondering if maybe I wasn’t a little aphantasic…or have become so as I get older. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been aware of the mind’s eye and visualization, but I just now tried to close my eyes and picture something but couldn’t. Ok, maybe that’s tough to do on demand. When was the last time I had pictured something? Not sure. Like Ross, I don’t dream or remember dreams (although I did when I was a kid), I’m bad with directions, my 6-year-old draws better than I do, I remember facts and ideas but not feelings so much, and when I was a designer, the conceptual stuff was always easier than the aesthetics. This bit also sounded familiar:

I’ve always felt an incomprehensible combination of stupid-smart. I missed a single question on the SATs, yet the easiest conceivable question stumps me: What was it like growing up in Miami?

I don’t know.

What were some of your favorite experiences at Facebook?

I don’t know.

What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.

I don’t know how much of that is the aphantasia and how much is positioning on the autistic spectrum or introversion or personality or some other kind of thing, but organizing events into narratives has never been easy for me.

What’s odd is I’ve always thought of my memory as a) pretty good, and b) primarily visual. When I took tests in college, I knew the answers because I could “see” them on the pages of the book I had read them in or in the notebook I had written them in. Not photographically exactly, but pretty close sometimes. I’m really good with faces, but not so much with names, although I’ve been improving lately with effort. I do well on visual tests, the ones where you need to pick out the same shapes that are rotated differently. Yes, I’m bad with directions, but once I’ve followed a route, I can usually muddle my way back along that same route visually. And sometimes, my feelings about past events are huge.

There’s this story I tell when the topic of celebrity sightings in New York comes up. My very first sighting happened a few months after I moved here. I was reading in a Starbucks in the West Village. Two women walk in, order, and sit in the back, maybe 25 feet away from me. At some point, I look up and I instantly recognize the woman who’s facing me: it’s Keri Russell. And in that moment, I understand celebrity. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in person in my life, and I’ve never even been a particular fan of hers, even though she is currently great in The Americans. It was her eyes, her crystal blue eyes. They were literally mesmerizing and I could not stop staring at them, which she noticed and I had to leave b/c I was being really weird.

So, two things about this story. Sitting here now, 13 years later, I can’t picture what she looked like, not exactly. There’s no image in my mind. She had short-ish hair and those blue eyes, but other than that, she looked…well, like Keri Russell. But when I recently told this story to a friend, he cocked his head and said, “she’s got blue eyes?” Oh yes, I told him, absolutely, those amazing lazer-blue eyes are the whole point of the story. A few days later, remembering his comment, I looked and Keri Russell’s eyes are not blue. They’re a greenish hazel!

Reader, I know memory is a weird thing and all, but what the hell is going on with me?

LeBron James Has a Photographic Memory

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2014

The evidence has mounted to such an extent that Brian Windhorst of ESPN has written an article about LeBron James’ fantastic memory.

So what does it mean? What it seems to suggest — at least the part of it that James will discuss — is that if you give up the baseline to James on a drive in November 2011 and he’s playing against you in March 2013, the Heat small forward will remember it. It means that if you tried to change your pick-and-roll coverage in the middle of the fourth quarter of the 2008 playoffs, he’ll be ready for you to try it again in 2014, even if you’re coaching a different team. It also means that if you had a good game the last time you played against Milwaukee because James got you a few good looks in the first quarter, the next time you play the Bucks you can count on James looking for you early in the game. Because, you know, the memory never forgets.

“I can usually remember plays in situations a couple of years back — quite a few years back sometimes,” James says. “I’m able to calibrate them throughout a game to the situation I’m in, to know who has it going on our team, what position to put him in.

“I’m lucky to have a photographic memory,” he will add, “and to have learned how to work with it.”

Which sounds great, right? Except that thinking’s best friend is often overthinking.

Consider what you know of the 2011 NBA Finals. And now consider it, instead, like this: In what will likely be remembered as the low point of his career, James is miserable for several games against the Dallas Mavericks — including a vitally important Game 4 collapse when he somehow scores just eight points in 46 minutes. At times during that game it appears as if James is in a trance.

“What is he thinking?” the basketball world wonders.

James — with two titles and counting, and four straight trips to the Finals — can admit today what he’s thinking in 2011: He’s thinking of everything. Everything good, and everything bad. In 2011, he isn’t just playing against the Mavs; he’s also battling the demons of a year earlier, when he failed in a series against the Boston Celtics as the pressure of the moment beat him down. It’s Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, and it is, to this point, perhaps the most incomprehensible game of James’ career. His performance is so lockjawed, so devoid of rhythm, the world crafts its own narrative, buying into unfounded and ridiculous rumors because they seem more plausible than his performance.

I’ve probably said this a million times, but my favorite aspect of sports is the mental game, each athlete’s battle with her/himself: from Shaq’s dreamful attraction to Allen Iverson’s visualization in lieu of practice to better living through self deception to Roger Federer’s conservation of concentration to free diver Natalia Molchanova’s attention deconcentration to deliberate practice to relaxed concentration. James taming his tide of memories fits right in.

Compartmentalized memory

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2009

Dick Cavett has been doing a version of his talk show, on and off, for about 40 years. Sometimes he couldn’t remember the guests from a show he’d just taped. Johnny Carson couldn’t either.

There is still a Cheever show of mine to be unearthed. I wish I could remember what’s on it. A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

I don’t know if this is related to separating one’s work life from the rest of it, but this happens to me all the time. If you were to ask me tonight what I’d posted to kottke.org today, I doubt I could tell you more than one or two items (out of the seven to nine items I post during a typical day). When I see friends outside of work, they sometimes remark on stuff I’ve posted recently and it usually takes me a few moments to remember what it is they’re referring to.

Finding out that others have this problem is a major load off of my mind…I really thought my memory was going down the tubes. (thx, mark)

Remembrance of Phones Past

posted by Adam Lisagor   Dec 05, 2007

I once went through a painful, protracted breakup, conducted almost entirely over this LG phone. It wasn’t a bad phone, but to this day, even a picture of it is like a punch to the gut - its Major-thirds ringtone, the wallpaper mocking my heartache with its cheery blue sky. I feel a little nauseous even describing it (my description may just be nauseating, in fairness).

In 2001, I spoke to my father on this Kyocera smartphone from 8th Avenue, having run up the block from work just in time to see the first tower fall. I don’t have to go into all the emotional baggage which that implies.

Now, in my current phase, I probably don’t have enough perspective to characterize what of me is reflected in my current phone, but I think that in a while, I’ll have an idea.

Since the time began that we were never to be found without our mobile phones (or whichever portable devices, for that matter), I feel that somehow all of the memories of the current chapter of my life are being constantly averaged out and inextricably linked to the phone that I’m using.

Do you have any similar experiences to share? Do you think that linking my identity to my gadgets entails a sort of anthropomorphism? What do you think Proust would have to say about all this? (I’ve never read Proust, so I’m honestly asking.) Other insightful references to prior discussions or great thinkers would be helpful as well.

Update: Michael Leddy at orange crate art has been mining his Proust and has turned up an incredibly relevant passage to the discussion:

…a thing which we have looked at long ago, if we see it again, brings back to us, along with our original gaze, all the images which that gaze contained. This is because things — a book in its red binding, like the rest — at the moment we notice them, turn within us into something immaterial, akin to all the preoccupations or sensations we have at that particular time, and mingle indissolubly with them.

-Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again

New research suggests that doctored photos can

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2007

New research suggests that doctored photos can easily influence a viewer’s memory of the events depicted.

For example, those participants shown the doctored photograph of the protest in Rome (top right), in which figures placed in the foreground give the impression of violence, rated the event as being significantly more violent and negative than it actually was. In their comments, they also provided false details, such as conflicts, damages, injuries and casualties that did not appear in the photos and were not documented at the event.

(via conscientious)

From an article on human memory that

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2007

From an article on human memory that includes profiles of a woman who remembers everything she’s done in her life since age 11 and a man who remembers almost nothing after 1960:

The metaphors we most often use to describe memory — the photograph, the tape recorder, the mirror, the hard drive — all suggest mechanical accuracy, as if the mind were some sort of meticulous transcriber of our experiences. And for a long time it was a commonly held view that our brains function as perfect recorders-that a lifetime of memories are socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic, and if they can’t be found it isn’t because they’ve disappeared, but only because we’ve lost access to them.

That’s not the case, of course. A better metaphor for human memory might be that of an almost-saturated sponge trying to sop up spilled water on a counter. The sponge gets some of the water up but also loses some of its already-captured liquid and you just sort of smear the watery mess all over until the counter is completely wet but appears less waterlogged than it was. At least, that’s how *my* memory works.

Forgetting May Be Part of the Process

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2007

Forgetting May Be Part of the Process of Remembering. “A lightning memory, in short, is not so much a matter of capacity as it is of ruthless pruning.” I pointed to some similar studies in my better living through self-deception post from a couple of weeks ago.

The Remembering Site is a place to

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2006

The Remembering Site is a place to create and share personal histories. The questions the site asks when recording your rememberances are quite extensive (here’s a sample biography/history)…what a great way to record the details of your life for your family and loved ones.

I will soon have no memory of this

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2005

From an article on mnemonics in the NY Times Magazine:

This might well be called the year of memory. Already, I’m able to click on the icon that marks the Find function on my little pocket Treo. Can’t think of a friend’s last name? I enter “Myrna,” and in a second the screen invites me to choose Davis, Greenberg or Lewis. Can’t remember the name of a book by Jonathan Spence? This time, it’s Google to the rescue: three clicks gives the answer: “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.” And that’s just the start.

Apple has just released Tiger, its latest operating system, which includes Spotlight. Just as Google searches the World Wide Web, this new feature uses a word or phrase to find a document inside your computer. Microsoft is at work on a new operating system, Longhorn, with similar capability. Such powerful assists to memory raise a question never before conceivable: Why struggle to remember anything?

I’ve been increasingly aware of this phenomenon with my own memory. Emails are forgotten seconds after they’re read; Mail.app will keep track of those. If I’m having lunch with a friend and they bring up something I’ve posted to kottke.org recently, it often takes me several seconds to remember posting it…my weblog (my outboard brain) is where I put things that I want to “remember”. I’ve never been able to remember people’s names worth a damn, but until recently, I knew hundreds of URLs. Now my newsreader keeps track of those for me. I know 3 phone numbers by heart: mine, Meg’s, and that of my childhood home (where my dad still resides); the rest are in my cell phone. Birthdays and special occasions are in iCal…I know a few friends’ birthdays and when the 4th of July is, but that’s about it. And Google remembers everything else.

I’m sure with all that storage space in my brain freed up for other things, I’m able to do so much more with my limited mental faculties. If only I could remember…

Why do we forget our childhood?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2005

Why do we forget our childhood?. Because we don’t know the language at such a young age to form memories.

As one gets smarter, how you use your memory changes

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2005

As one gets smarter, how you use your memory changes. “Verbatim memory is often a property of being a novice. As people become smarter, they start to put things into categories, and one of the costs they pay is lower memory accuracy for individual differences.”