How I learned to recall (in order) a shuffled deck of cards

I have always been fascinated with stretching human capabilities. Whether it’s physical or mental, certain individuals are able to foster their abilities to near “super human” magnitudes. Recently, I’ve been infatuated with the seemingly limited capacity of memory when I stumbled upon this book: You Can Have an Amazing Memory: Learn Life-Changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro by Dominic O’Brien.

The title is incredibly cheesy and the cover design doesn’t help. This is definitely a self-identified self-help book (you can cringe now). But regardless of how much I detested the way it looked, I picked it up and I’m happy that I did. Long story short: it works. Within a few hours of practice, I’m able to recall 24 randomized playing cards (number and suit) in the exact order just by looking at each card once.

It sounds pretty amazing and it’s definitely a nice party trick, but the theory behind it is quite simple. This brings me back to my undergrad days as a psychology major:

  • Memories with more links and associations are stronger than memories with fewer links because your brain has more points of access
  • Memories of people are usually stronger than memories of objects because people are animated and with each interaction associations are strengthened

So to not spoil the book too much, the author provides a series of exercises to strengthen memory links and sometimes it’s a little bit scary as to how fast memories can flood into your conscience. People, places and things that you haven’t thought about in years resurface and all of your memory becomes more vivid.

Of course it’s not all about real-world associations, but also about linkages that bend reality and this is where it gets interesting. Some exercises force you to think outside of the laws of nature. For example, imagine a leather basketball that feels like ice, sticky like toffee, smells like lavender, and pops like a balloon when you bounce it. When you’re reading this, you’re probably having a hard time grasping all of these concepts into one visualization because like I was, the description breaks all the conventional rules of how I identified a traditional basketball.

The purpose of these visualizations is to lower the confines of creativity and let outrageous linkages take place. And when you need to draw upon out-of-the-box thinking, new linkages will literally defy the laws of physics. And it was for this reason that really drew me to developing a better memory. As children, our creativity was limitless, but as we grew up, the rules of science, nature and society began to box in our creative abilities.

But don’t take my word for it, go get the book.