A few weeks ago, Bob Norland of Temecula, Calif., shocked members of a local Toastmasters club by memorizing the names, addresses, zip codes and telephone numbers of the 20 people present -- in a matter of minutes.
Norland is not a magician. He's not a psychic, nor is he an entertainer. At 71, he is a retired nurseryman who three years ago was bedridden with a stroke that slurred his speech and paralyzed his right side. His biggest concern then, he recalls, was his memory. Did he still have it? How badly was it damaged?
Hospitalized three months, Norland scoured a handful of memory improvement books his wife bought him. "The upshot is my memory is better today than it has ever been," he says. "I used to be real sloppy with it -- one of those 'I-never-forget-a-face-but-always-forget-a-name' guys. Now I never forget a telephone number or a name. People who knew me before and know me now are amazed."
While tricks to improve memory, known as mnemonics, date back thousands of years, as recently as three decades ago the "amazing" promises were more likely to be found on back covers of comic books than in a classroom.
But in the past 15 years, cognitive psychologists who study how the brain performs have changed that. By verifying that mnemonics works, they gave the technique credibility. By probing to understand how and why it works, they gave the always popular memory gimmicks respect -- shifting them from comic books to best-seller lists. Still, mind scientists and memory salesmen make for strange bedfellows.
"There is no reason any longer for people to brag about their bad memories as they do about the length of their appendix scar," says Harry Lorayne, a nationally known memory expert whose techniques Bob Norland praises. When listening to Lorayne, you get the feeling he was fast-talking audiences and readers to better memories long before it was respectable. His 11th book, Harry Lorayne's Page-a-Minute Memory Book (Holt Rinehart Winston, $12.95), tells how to blend salesmanship with showmanship.
Last month, he stood on the stage of the "Merv Griffin" show and rattled off the names of 150 strangers in the audience. Griffin, a master of over-statement, chided Lorayne for not going for 300 -- his previous feat on the show. His record, scoffs Lorayne, came on a bet -- 1,000 names.
"Nobody else ever got up and remembered 1,000 people," says Lorayne, described as "The World's Foremost Memory Expert" on his book jacket. "I could remember 10,000 if I had the time. It would take a couple of days. But I'm only limited by time. I show people what can be done with memory."
Lorayne attributes his obsession with memory to his schoolboy days when he would come home with stomach cramps from fear that his father would "beat the hell" out of him for his bad grades. "I couldn't remember simple facts," he says. "It had nothing to do with intelligence, only memory. Of course, I overcompensated."
A little book explaining 17th-century memory techniques changed his life. He would later discover that epic recitations by ancient Romans were possible because of a mnemonic method called "loci" -- reference points. The Roman orator Quintilian, for example, devised memory points that linked a sequence of ideas, names or phrases to various rooms in an imaginary mansion. As he mentally walked through the mansion, the appearance of each room would trigger recall of specific information.
Most modern mnemonic techniques -- including Lorayne's -- are revisions of age-old methods using associative crutches to prop up memory. "What I did is to streamline and sophisticate these techniques to make them work in this work-a-day world," says Lorayne.
Actress Anne Bancroft vouches for that. Lorayne trained Bancroft and her husband, actor Mel Brooks to memorize the lyrics to "Sweet Georgia Brown" -- in Polish -- for Brooks' 1983 film "To Be or Not To Be." The actress, boasts Lorayne, recently sent him a note thanking him for " . . . making the drudgery of memorizing scripts part of my creative art." Lorayne will tell you he advises "lots of big, big politicians in Washington, too." But he can't reveal their names because, he says, "they could never ever again stand in front of a congressional hearing and claim, 'I can't recall.' "
Lorayne's sales pitch includes slogans that, while esthetically forgettable, are designed to be memorable: "Associate. You'll be Great!" and "You're Using Your Imaginuity." His associative ploys range from simple word substitutions, such as thinking "paid uncle" for the word peduncle, to complex mind twisters akin to the surrealist visions of Salvador Dali.
To demonstrate how to remember "esoteric" information, for instance, Lorayne writes: "How would you go about learning the dynasties of China -- Prehistoric China, Chou Dynasty, Ch'in Dynasty, Han Dynasty, T'ang Dynasty, Ming Dynasty? Start your link with a 'heading' picture, perhaps 'Dinah's tea' or Chinese tea. To that, associate -- a prehistoric animal (perhaps drinking Dinah's tea); the animal turns into a chow (or waits in a chow line); a chow bites your chin; a chin is growing on your hand; a gigantic hand crawls out of a tank (or says 'thanks'); there's a mink in the tank."
His cross to bear, Lorayne says, is to make people believe they can do these things. "Nobody thinks twice about going to the doctor to help them see better, or help them hear better," he says, reminding his listener that he is now the memory doctor for "scores" of Fortune 500 executives. "But when it comes to these mental things, they don't think they can do it. Anybody can do it. If I told the truth, if I really said what you could do, it sounds like hype. It sound like I'm full of baloney."
Although reluctant to admit it, scientists say Lorayne is not full of boloney. "As far as Lorayne's allegation that there is no limit to how much you can remember, it may be possible if you spent the time," says Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and a noted memory researcher.
"Certainly his techniques and the basic psychology on which they are based make it possible. I know exactly what I would have to do to remember 50 names of people at a cocktail party, but I'm simply not willing to do it. I'm not willing to make all of those bizarre connections."
Scientists break down the memory process into three phases: registration, consolidation and retrieval. The first phase -- paying attention -- is obviously the whole ballgame. But, verifying the use of mnemonics, they've learned you have to do more than simply experience an event to remember it.
Information received by the brain is initially kept in a "short-term" docket, you might say. The most meaningful chunks -- those that are highly visual, have high emotional impact or are the focus of concentration -- get transferred to long-term memory where, some experts maintain, they can stay forever.
Mnemonic techniques are simply artificial means of hedging your bet that unspectacular short-term memories will make it into long-term. They are a way, say cognitive psychologists, to index your thought processes. Traditional grade-school memorization stresses rote learning of facts that may or may not be organized best for effective recall. It's a method we carry into adulthood and is at the heart of self-defeating statements such as, "I've always had a bad memory" or "I can never remember names."
For Loftus, the challenge of memory isn't what you remember but how you forget. Memory snafus are her territory. Her research has turned up evidence that strong emotions influence the accuracy of memory -- with difficult information the first victim of stress and anger. Lately, she has focused on distortion and manipulation of memory in everyday life.
"Actually, our memories aren't as good as we think they are," she says. New evidence suggests what Loftus calls "forward telescoping," the tendency to remember events of personal impact as having happened more recently than they did. Another mind snag, she says, is called "memory blends" -- when two impressions merge into one. "We see a green car, someone says it was blue, and our memory registers it as bluish green," explains Loftus. "Nobody holds our memories accountable that much."
While memory is a field of potential for scientists and salesmen, the public rarely translates its longtime curiosity about it into those "amazing" powers. Henry C. Ellis, cognitive psychologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, says, "People appear to be able to put virtually anything they want to in their long-term memory if it's important to them and they're willing to work on it.
"Most people are not interested in becoming memory experts, but they are interested in improving and retrieving information," adds Ellis, who links increased fascination about memory processes with the computer age. "When we are introduced to people, we want to remember their names. When we are looking for the car in the parking lot, we want to remember where we put it."
Robert Montgomery, author of Memory Made Easy (AMACOM, $11.95) and a memory instructor for 30 years, calls the mind "an associating machine" and says, "I want people to know that they've got a good computer in their heads. Scientists say if they could duplicate the human brain into machinery, there wouldn't be room on the face of the Earth to fit that computer."
Montgomery, who ventures from his Burnsville, Minn., headquarters to give lectures around the country, wows audiences by memorizing in minutes every picture and its page number in People magazine. But he sells audiences on memory improvement by talking dollars and cents.
"You can save a lot of money with a good memory today," he says, asking how often have you had to pay for directory assistance for a phone number you could've easily remembered.
"People go around saying they can't remember names, they can't remember telephone numbers, they can't remember jokes," he says, adding on cue, "A man tells his doctor, 'Doc, I've got a problem. I can't remember anything.' The doctor says, 'How long have you had this problem.' The patient says, 'What problem?'
"It's not that they can't remember -- it's that they just don't do it. But it's so easy, it's second nature once you have it. It's like 'i before e except after c.' You can learn the system in one day. Visualize, repeat and associate -- I put it in verbs, 'cause you gotta do the work."
Dolores Van Wagenen, acting director of the Reading Center at George Washington University, says that people typically want a quick fix on their memories -- and not hours of learning and a lifetime of practice.
Van Wagenen teaches mnemonics not for show but for daily application. "You can learn to remember lists easily, learn to remember long numbers, zip codes, names and faces, and easily learn new vocabulary for foreign languages," she says, adding it takes about six hours of instruction. "I have no interest in teaching people how to remember the names of 300 people."
Her complaint: "Ours is a society in which it is okay to have a bad memory. People don't go around saying they have bad judgment, but they'll admit they have bad memory without hesitating at all. Yet they don't do anything about it."
Therein lies the trouble with contemporary memory strategies, according to Kathy Pezdek, professor of psychology at The Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, Calif. They require more effort than most people want to give.
"There are a number of techniques out there and they work -- there's no doubt that they work," says Pezdek, who researches memory and has taught mnemonics. "People want an easy solution . . . people want a memory pill. With memory, you have to work on it all of the time."
And, she warns, there's nothing new that'll make it easier in the future. "It's my opinion that we have topped out in terms of generating effective memory techniques. Most of the work in this field is understanding the mechanism by which these things work. But that will not have any implications for techniques that the general population can use."
As for the memory improvement books published every year, Pezdek says they offer nothing new but are generated more by enthusiasm for memory improvement than by greed. "Old wine in new bottles," she calls today's mnemonics. A heady brew nonetheless.