Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Steven LEVITT: Usually on this podcast, I’m just happy if we have a great conversation, but today I’m striving for something more. I want to learn how to remember things better. And I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to sit down with four-time U.S.A. memory tournament champion Nelson Dellis, who’s authored the books Memory Superpowers and Remember It! I’m not sure there’s anyone around who can better teach me and you how to improve our memories.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: Since this episode is about memory, let’s test our memories. I’m going to right now randomly generate an eight-digit number on my computer and I’m going to read it out loud. And let’s see if you and I can remember it after the ad break. O.K.? Now, I’m only going to read the numbers once. I’m randomly generating them. O.K., here they are. You ready? Here they go: zero-three-one-six-three-three-one-two. O.K., think about those numbers. I’m doing the same. And let’s try to put those in our memory. 

*      *      * 

LEVITT: Do you appreciate the irony of the fact that, from an economist’s perspective, the value of a good memory today is probably lower than almost any time in human history? Technology has dramatically lowered the cost of forgetting. Almost any answer is a Google search away and note taking and list making and reminders have become easier and easier. And Facebook tells me when my friends are having birthdays. It’s interesting that you’ve picked an exploit that the economy is really saying isn’t very important anymore.

Nelson DELLIS: You’re totally right. I mean, why use our memories anymore, right? But the reason I started was from more of a health standpoint. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and watching her lose her memory and who she was in tandem with that was life changing for me. And that’s what motivated me to work on my memory. So, it was never out of this need to remember things that are just a tap away or a click away, but rather to strengthen my memory. And hopefully, when I’m older, I’ll have more of a tool set that I can call on to help prolong my potentially failing mind.

LEVITT: I was under the impression that the science wasn’t completely conclusive on that issue of whether it sort of — I don’t know— the brain is a muscle or whatever the kind of construct would be.

DELLIS: I don’t go out there claiming these memory techniques can fix that kind of thing or prevent it. But if there’s like a version of myself that never discovered memory techniques and then my memory champion self, and we’re both 80-years-old, starting to forget things, and maybe we’re both destined to get Alzheimer’s, you’d have to think the memory champion that has developed these habits and tools over the course of his life would have some crutches to help him remember just a little bit more for a little bit longer, right? And I think that’s worth something. If I can just squeeze out a few more years of cognitive life why not?

LEVITT: This is a case where I think the skeptics say, “Oh, there’s very few or no good randomized trial studies that prove this.” But the fact is, there are a lot of settings in which it’s really hard to do a randomized trial. Because we could try to randomize some people to work on the memory and others not, but the outcomes we’re talking about are 10, 20, 30 years away. So, in the end, I think the literature that I’ve seen tends to be more observational and people are, with reason, skeptical about it. But, you know, I’ve done the same thing you did. I didn’t try to become a memory champion, but I really felt like my brain was starting to fail me. And so, my take on it was to try to do trivia. So, I was really good at trivia as a kid and then hadn’t thought about trivia in 35 years. And I joined a trivia league. And I thought it would just be a thing where a few minutes a day I would think about it. Maybe it would make my brain a little more supple. Instead, I got completely and totally obsessed with it. And now, I actually spend a lot of time trying to memorize things, which is what made me so interested in talking to you.

2014 MEMORY CHAMPIONSHIP; NELSON DELLIS:  Six of diamonds, eight of spades. Oh, sorry. Ace of spades, jack of spades, jack of clubs, three of diamonds.

LEVITT: So that was a clip of you winning the 2014 U.S.A. memory championship after memorizing the order of two decks of playing cards. Could you tell listeners about some of the other events that make up a memory tournament? For instance, there’s one event that’s called 30-minute binary digits. What does that entail?

DELLIS: You get 30-minutes to look at pages and pages of ones and zeros, the binary numbers. And you have to remember as many as you can, in order, and write them all down. You get, I think, an hour to write down as many of them as you can.

LEVITT: O.K. So, I’d like to just pause for a second to let listeners think about how they themselves might do on that challenge. O.K., so let me think of myself, just trying to imagine. I mean, 30 minutes is a long time. But, I don’t know, zeros and ones — I’m not very good with zeros and ones. They just blur in my mind. So, I’m thinking maybe I could get 30, 50.

DELLIS: I mean, if you have 30 minutes, I think you could do probably maybe 100. You could probably just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse in those 30 minutes, but 100 isn’t a good score comparatively.

LEVITT: O.K., all right. So, let me ask the listeners now, just take a second and guess what the world record might be. Off the top of my head, not knowing anything, I might have guessed 500. O.K.. But then, I know that people get absurdly good at things that they practice a lot. So, I’m thinking maybe 1,000. But then, when I start doing the math, 1,000 is one digit every two seconds for 30 minutes straight. And that seems pretty impossible to me. And the real answer is 7,485? 7,485! I mean, are you kidding me? That’s four digits memorized per second for 30 minutes and then regurgitated. I mean, that doesn’t even make sense. O.K., let’s do one more before we get into answers. Because I know you’re going to clarify all this for us, and how this is really actually quite easy. Let’s mention one more event that’s called 15-minute names and faces. What’s that all about?

DELLIS: So, you get basically a packet of printed headshots of people of all types of ethnicities and backgrounds, and they have a first and last name printed under them. So, they’re actually quite difficult at international competitions because you could have a Chinese first name and a German last name. And you have 15 minutes to study that. And then, afterwards, you get the same packet. The headshots are jumbled, and you have to basically write the correct names under the right photo.

LEVITT: O.K.. And how is the scoring done in that event?

DELLIS: Every individual name is one point.

LEVITT: First name gets you a point and the last name gets you a point. If you only know one of them, that’s O.K. You still only get one point. O.K. Nelson, you just happen to hold the U.S. record in that event. And what is that record?

DELLIS: 235 names.

LEVITT: O.K. So, it’s interesting because, obviously, that’s incredible, O.K., that you remember — memorized 235 names in 15 minutes. So, that’s like, what, three to four seconds per memorized name or something over 15 minutes? Which, again, shows how crazy good it is. But I have to say it doesn’t seem as completely and utterly absurd as the other record.

DELLIS: Yeah, I mean, when I reveal a little bit of the strategies behind the ones that are based around numbers you could see how, first of all, you could memorize that much information, but how it might be easier versus something like names, because at least with binary, you know what you’re going to get. It’s a one or a zero.

LEVITT: How do people tackle the binary, to start with?

DELLIS: So, there’s different strategies. The way I do it — which, just to give you an idea, my binary is not my best. I can do about two to 3,000, which still sounds pretty insane.

LEVITT: Only 2,000 to 3,000? Wow.

DELLIS: It’s a weak score. But, basically, what I do is I’ll take every three binary digits and turn it into a regular digit. So, if you think about, you know, could be zero-zero-one, zero-zero-zero, zero-one-zero — there’s eight possibilities of combinations, right? So, I basically assign each of those combos a digit zero through seven — zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. So, for every three, I’m actually compressing it into one digit that I can read as a normal number. So, then, I have a whole number system for regular numbers that allows me to memorize eight digits at a time. So, basically eight times three I can memorize 24 binary the same I could eight digits. So, it spans a lot more and allows me to travel more distance in terms of how much I memorize.

LEVITT: And how do you do the eight?

DELLIS: I use a system that’s person, action, object. I have a system where I can turn any three-digit number into a person.

LEVITT: So three digits, there’s a thousand of those. So, you have 1,000 people in your head that go with each three-digit — so, 472 is somebody for you?

DELLIS: That’s John Kerry.

LEVITT: 811?

DELLIS: 811? That’s Sharapova, the tennis player. Picturing the person, that’s a lot more memorable than the three numbers in a row. That’s the idea behind it.

LEVITT: O.K. O.K. Great. So, that gives you three of the numbers. So, you still have five left.

DELLIS: Yep. And then the next two digits are an action. So, I have 100 actions that are represented by any two-digit combo.

LEVITT: What’s one? What’s number one?

DELLIS: Well, it would be zero one if that’s — 

LEVITT: Zero one. Zero one. Yeah.

DELLIS: So, that’s wielding an ax, like swinging it down. So, if it was eight-one-one — Sharapova, zero-one, it would be Sharapova wielding an ax.

LEVITT: And the last three is who she’s hitting with the ax.

DELLIS: Almost. it’s an object, so it’s — 

LEVITT: Oh, an object. O.K., an object.

DELLIS: Yeah. I have 1,000 objects, but they’re related to the person that is also that number. So, like, if it was Sharapova, if it was another eight-11, eight-one-one, her object — she was doing like a camera commercial back in the day. So, I always associate a camera — like, a handheld point-and-shoot — to her if it’s an object. So, if it was eight-one-one, zero-one, eight-one-one, that would be Sharapova like axing a point and shoot camera. And that visual is a lot easier to remember than that slew of eights and ones and zeros.

LEVITT: Oh, I see. So, the three-digit number that goes with the person and with the object, you’ve actually linked those two already in your mind. But what happens if it’s eight-one-one, zero-one, and then two-four-seven?

DELLIS: Yeah. So, two-four-seven, the object slash person is the little face hugger alien thing from the movie Aliens. If that was eight-one-one, zero-one, two-four-seven, it would be Sharapova axing one of those face-hugger things.

LEVITT: O.K. Awesome. So, that gets you 24. But the thing is, you’re going to do that 100 times to get to your number. How do you tie them together?

DELLIS: So, this is where a lot of us top memory athletes will use a technique called the memory palace. And we’re effectively taking locations that we know, like our house or our apartment or school, places that we’re familiar with, and basically populating places around that place with these images. And we’re mentally walking through that place as we memorize them and then when we recall them. And that structure keeps the order. It sounds kind of crazy, but it works phenomenally well.

LEVITT: To be really clear to people who haven’t heard about it before, so you start at your house, at the front door or something, and so, you’ve got Sharapova axing some aliens. And you’re going to place that at your front door? O.K. Then, you take the next 24 digits of binaries, you turn those into eight digits of numbers. And then, you put that in your entryway or something like that?

DELLIS: Yeah. So, what happens when you open the door? Well, yeah, there’s an entryway there. So, I would put the next eight digits or 24 binary in that location and kind of carry on that process as I go.

LEVITT: O.K.. And so, then you would need 100 spots to put these roughly — to get your score.

DELLIS: To get around my score.

LEVITT: 2,000. It’s interesting how quickly you’ve transformed my thinking about this, right? Because it started like 2,000 zeros and ones seems totally impossible. But it’s really interesting how you turned 24 pieces into one piece. Now, even though it’s 100 pieces, sounds really hard. But at least it’s like taken from the realm of complete craziness to, like, only one step below complete craziness.

DELLIS: I mean just imagine Sharapova wielding an ax and splattering one of these alien-looking things. Like, that is a memorable thing. That’s really hard to erase. Even if you listen to this podcast and don’t remember the number, that image will stick with you. And that’s what I’ve learned effectively, is a language for numbers, that when I see all those numbers, it’s instant. It’s a feeling. I’ve learned it to that point where I’m fluent in that translation.

LEVITT: How about names with faces? You must do something very different with names with faces.

DELLIS: Yeah, so there is no pre-learned system. But basically, I’ll look at the photo, or the person. But I choose a feature on the photo or the person’s face. So, whether it’s a big nose or a crooked smile, pretty eyes, if it’s an attractive person, or maybe not attractive, whatever I notice, and the idea is that when I see the person’s face later on and I have to recall the name, I’m going to notice the same feature I noticed before. And I try to come up with a picture for that name. It’s an improvisational thing. What does the name sound like or read like in my mind? Or does it look like another word, maybe a noun that I can visualize? And once I have a picture, I attach it or imagine it interacting with the feature, kind of how we attach things in a memory palace like I did with the example before in the front door.

LEVITT: There’s no real geography associated. There’s no journey. They’re just in your head somewhere.

DELLIS: Yeah, they’re tiny little memory palaces on each person’s face.

LEVITT: I know you’re really social. And I’m guessing a lot of the other competitors in the memory championships are probably a lot less social than you. Do you think that gives you an advantage in this domain, why you’re particularly good at names and faces?

DELLIS: I would say I’m an introvert, but I do have a lot of outgoing tendencies as well. I think also having grown up speaking other languages helps. My parents are French and Belgian. So, we grew up in Europe. And my parents spoke French to each other. My mother spoke Dutch to her relatives. French was my first language. And then, when we moved to Miami, Spanish was all around. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I know it pretty well. We were always in international schools. So, that helps a lot when trying to pull from associations, when dealing with words or names that I’m trying to memorize. And now that I’ve also learned Dutch — or still learning Dutch, rather — I have an even greater pool.

LEVITT: So, I tried to learn German as an adult because my wife is German. And my goal was to be semi-fluent in a lifetime, and I still haven’t achieved that.

DELLIS: German’s a tough one.

LEVITT: So, I knew a little bit about memory palaces from Josh Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, which is an amazing book. And I tried to apply that to language. So, I tried to build memory palaces. And in that setting, it didn’t work very well for me. So, my strategy — maybe a bad one— was I tried to take a bunch of German verbs that began with the letter A. And I wanted to put those in a particular memory palace with their English translation. And then, I wanted to put the Bs in some other memory palace and the Cs. And I think the problem was I was trying to put two pieces of information in there and I just kind of gave up. Do you sense that’s the wrong strategy when you’re learning languages?

DELLIS: Yeah, I do. Memory palaces aren’t always the most effective technique to memorize something. In fact, I’d say they’re best suited for things that need to preserve order in some way because that pathway that you walk through is what’s keeping the structure. So the order of numbers, the order of a deck of cards, or a sequence of directions, — memory palace is great. But then, when you come to something like language where, it’s fluid, you don’t know what words you’re going to have to access. It doesn’t work like that. Someone may say something, and you don’t want to go look it up in your memory palace. That’s so inefficient. So, the way I approached it is kind of like names and faces where there’s a face and there’s a name and you want to connect them. And that’s what you want to do with a word or a verb or something that you’re learning is you have this foreign word and then you have the definition or the image that represents what it means. And it’s actually probably better to not think of the English word or whatever your native language is translating it to, but the image of what it represents. And then, just attach those things somehow. Let’s say we’re talking about a dog. In French, it’s a chien. So, maybe, if you want to memorize that, chien, if you look at the word, it looks like “chain” in a way. So, you would somehow attach this chain to a dog — that seems kind of logical. But I’d imagine every time I see a dog just wrapped in chains. And that will help trigger this cue that, oh, the French word for dog or the image of a dog is chain-ish. Chien. 

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with memory champion Nelson Dellis. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about how mountaineering is similar to memory challenges.

*      *      * 

LEVITT: Last week I told you we’re going to start a new segment here on the podcast where I answer listener questions. And we’re going to be starting that next week, so in the meantime, send us your questions about this podcast or anything you’d like me to answer and the place to send those questions is to our email address: If you’ve already sent your questions — thank you! We’ve got great questions coming in and we’re excited to hear more. Now back to my conversation with Nelson Dellis.

*      *      * 

So I read eight numbers aloud at the beginning of the show. Do you remember them? I’m trying to remember them now myself, and I know the first digit was a zero and then there was a three. Oh, my God. And I, literally, have no idea about the last six. Let me look back at my computer screen to see what they were. O.K., so the numbers were zero-three-one-six-three-three-one-two. So I was right on the first two. Still not a very good showing and I hope that you did better. But look, the fact is it’s a hard, hard task remembering numbers. So let’s try an experiment. Can we use Nelson’s strategy to make these numbers more memorable? So let me just try myself. So I want to assign a person, an action, an object to divide that eight-digit number into three clumps. Okay, so the first three numbers are zero-three-one. Thirty-one. 31 is the age of Taylor Swift. I love Taylor Swift. So I’m going to assign zero-three-one and just try to remember Taylor Swift and relate that back. O.K., the next two numbers, 63, six-three, that sounds like a really good golf score. So let me think about Taylor Swift with a golf club — swinging it. And the last three numbers were, let me go back. Three-one-two. Three-one-two is an area code for the city of Chicago and is indeed my own area code. So let me try to imagine Taylor Swift swinging a golf club, smashing my cell phone into pieces. All right. So we’ll see at the end of the second half of this interview whether I have better luck remembering those numbers now that I’ve attached some meaning to them. And maybe you want to take my meaning or maybe you want to build your own meaning. But I’m going to test you again at the end of the episode. So see if you can remember those eight numbers. 

*      *      * 

LEVITT: So, two things surprised me about your amazing success. The first is that you claim to have only an average memory before you started doing this, which like — are you just making that up? Is that real?

DELLIS: I’m telling you, it’s the way it is. Like a caveat is, I may not have had a good memory, but I had a really good work ethic for something that I was passionate about. And that, obviously, shows with this memory stuff. That was really important to me. And I spent tons of time on it. But I’ve taught many people how to do a lot of the things that I can do, maybe not to the championship level, but they were able to get to a really high level of improving their memory with just some of these basic techniques.

LEVITT: So, the second thing I was going to say that surprised me is how quickly you became world-class at this. So, if I understand it, it was literally a year to go from Mr. Average to U.S. National Champion. Is that correct?

DELLIS: Yeah. It’s not like tennis. If you want to be ranked top 10 in tennis, there are hundreds of thousands of people playing tennis, right? Possibly millions. And to be the top, it’s not just practice at that point, right? You’ve got to have something that sets you apart. With memory, it’s still relatively new of a sport. So, I think — especially at the time that I joined, the bar to aim for to become a memory champ or a record-holder wasn’t that intense.

LEVITT: In economics — the economics Nobel Prize is a little bit like being the U.S. Memory Champion in that it seems like, wow, it’s really competitive. But when you actually start doing the numbers, there aren’t that many people who get economics Ph.D.s from elite institutions and you’ve got a lot of years to do it. So, I think I did a calculation at one point, and it turned out that roughly the chance of winning an economics Nobel Prize, conditional on completing a Ph.D. at a top university, was more or less the same as winning a gold medal in luge, which again, is not the most competitive thing in the world. But still, I mean, the fact is there were hundreds of people, if not more, trying to do what you were doing and you were just better. Did you come up with any tweaks that other people hadn’t thought of that gave you an edge at all?

DELLIS: No. I borrowed a lot of what were the hot or trendy strategies at the time. It was this P.A.O., person, action, object. But, that eight-digit system is — the way I developed that I think is my own take on it. And a lot of those strategies that people use in these competitions, they’ve been the same for a long time. Occasionally, someone will come up with some slight modification that yields insane results and then everybody will switch over. But then, maybe it’s not the best for everybody. And they’ll go back to the original method.

LEVITT: I’m surprised that when people come up with innovations, their first reaction is to tell everyone else how they did it. Wouldn’t you think you’d keep it secret for a while and make people wonder?

DELLIS: That’s the strange thing about this sport. You know, everybody’s very open with their strategies. I don’t think anybody has anything that they’d say, “Oh, I don’t want to tell or reveal what I’m doing.” In fact, people who do that, a lot of us think that there’s something going on. Maybe they’re faking it or they’re doing some magic and not being honest. I think a big part of it is that we know that they’re not quick, easy fixes, it takes a lot of practice and time to perfect it. And not many people will do that. 

LEVITT: So, I had been kind of discouraged from the memory palace. But in preparation for this interview, I was reading your book, Remember It! And I said, “O.K., even though I failed on language, I’m going to try it again.” And now, trivia is my thing. And my worst category by far in trivia is theater. So, yesterday, I said, “Just for fun so I can tell Nelson like how impossible these techniques are for regular people, I decided to build a memory palace of the 70 musicals that have won the Tony Award for Best Musical from 1949 to the present, which, like you said, has order. I almost went into a mindset of like, yeah, I’m going to show Nelson these aren’t that good. And so, I sat down, and I started doing it.

Kiss me Kate. South Pacific. Guys and Dolls, King and I, Wonderful Town. Kismet, Pajama Game, Red Head, Damn Yankees. Fiorello! and The Sound of Music, Bye Bye Birdie. Forget what was next. What is that? Anyway, after that, it’s Something Happened on the Way to the Forum. Hello, Dolly!. The one about how to get away with murder or something like that. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and then Fun Home. Hamilton. Dear Evan Hansen. The Band’s Visit. And Hadestown.

And an hour later, I knew the 70. And it blew my mind. I mean, I was really prepared. And I thought, oh, well, I’m going to forget these within like 15 minutes. I woke up this morning and I was 70 for 70. I think if I had done it the regular way, I might know 15 right now instead of 70. I’ll probably spend like half an hour a day for the next month or two and try to memorize everything in sight. Overnight, I just became like the biggest fan of this technique. It’s really interesting how, even the first time you try it, it works so well.

DELLIS: There’s another memory champion named Yanjaa, a very memorable name. And she always says, and I’m quoting her here, is that, “These techniques are better done than said.” You explain them and it sounds interesting but sounds like a roundabout way to do something that might be easier just rotely. But it’s not. But you’ve got to try it. And once you see how easy it is, you’re convinced, and you’ll want to keep doing it. And one other thing I wanted to say about, you learning these 70 musical names — typically, when you study something, you have it on paper or you have it on your screen and then, when you want to review it, you’re probably going to go look back at the sheet and quiz yourself. With a memory palace, you can really just look at something once, put it in your memory palace, and then the review happens in your memory palace. Just by thinking about you walking through your house or wherever you put it, that is the review. And the more you do that, the more it will be burned into your long-term memory.

LEVITT: What I really wanted to talk to you about today is look, we’re talking about memory in adults.  But the real need for memory today, it seems to me, is not adults, but kids, because we ask kids to memorize enormous amounts of stuff. And I’ve heard that for character-based languages like Chinese or Japanese, some huge portion of childhood hours per day is devoted to learning characters. O.K. And it’s probably the case that our schools put way too much emphasis on rote memorization. But given that they have that emphasis, it’s really tragic, don’t you think, that we don’t teach kids the tools that would transform their ability to memorize things?

DELLIS: Yeah, I mean, think of like your first homework assignment — I can’t remember mine, but it probably had to do with remembering something — a poem or a list of things, your alphabet, your times tables, right? It’s all memorization. And they kind of throw you in the deep end. It’s like, here, memorize this. But as a kid, you’ve never learned how to efficiently use your memory. What if that’s the first thing we taught kids, how to use their memories properly? A lot of people avoid memorizing-based learning or they shun it when, no, that’s part of learning. Sorry. You’ve got to remember things. But it doesn’t have to be the main focus of learning. In fact, if you use these memory techniques, I’m saying you can spend very little time on the memorization and then actually focus on context and what it means and what it implies for the future. I give this example of memorizing the presidents, right? If I were to teach you how to do that, I’m going to give you a list of 45 presidents’ names converted into very weird pictures. So, actually, what you’d be memorizing is not the presidents, but 45 weird pictures, right? And someone might argue that, there’s no information in that. But what we’re doing is putting in kind of these placeholders for bigger concepts. And once we have them laid out then you can layer on whatever you want after that. And then, you can get to the real interesting stuff — what did this president do? And what were his policies?

LEVITT: You’ve attempted to climb Mount Everest three times, once getting a few hundred feet from the summit, and another time almost dying on the way. So, can I just say that there are few things that are less appealing to me than trying to climb mountains? What do you like about it?

DELLIS: It makes me feel so insignificant and I love that feeling. It just makes you feel like you’re part of something way bigger than your ego and your life just being out there in some of the most remote places and hard-to-access places in the world. I like that competitive side of myself being pushed to the max.

LEVITT: Is there some connection between memory and mountaineering that I’m not seeing, or are they just two things you like to do?

DELLIS: Yeah, I think that they’re really just two things I like to do. There is a little bit of shared commonality in the sense that, obviously, memory training is a very mental sport, but so is mountaineering. Sure, it’s a physical thing. But a lot of what goes into that is having this mental strength to endure. And a lot of these days where you’re hiking or climbing are hours of just plodding along. And it’s uncomfortable. And I often find myself going to similar headspaces that I do when I’m trying to memorize something quickly, which is blocking out distractions, just focusing on one thing at a time, that’s my peaceful place. It’s like a very meditative Zen kind of thing. And they are very similar, memory sports and mountaineering, in that sense.

LEVITT: So, I always like to end by asking my guests to give some advice to listeners. And it would be way too easy to ask you about getting better at remembering faces. If folks want that, it’s all in your books. They should find them. So, let me ask you some much harder questions. O.K. So, I have lots of kids. And the strange thing is — I pretty much can only remember them at whatever age they are today. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine what my 4-year-old was like when she was two or my 2-year-old when she was 9-months-old. Does your work with memory provide any hint about how I might be able to better lock in these age-specific memories?

DELLIS: So, you must have photos and videos and memories of one of your kids at a certain age, right?

LEVITT: So, I can look at a photo of my 4-year-old when she was 2 and say that she was 2. O.K. But in some sense, if I say what was it like when she was 2? How did we interact? What was our relationship? It’s literally like I don’t think she ever was 2. I think she just materialized at 4. And it’s really sad. And I’ve never been able to get anyone to explain to me exactly why it happens or how to get around it.

DELLIS: That’s tough, but I have two young kids. One is 2-years-old a bit and the other one’s 6 months, just. So, the 6-month-old, he’s so fresh that I remember a lot of what’s happened in these past six months. But like, my 2-year-old, you’re right. My wife will show me a memory of about a year ago or I’m trying to compare this new kid being 6-months to what my other son had been doing at 6-months. I don’t know if I have the answer. But one thing I started doing this year, especially since my second was born, was I wanted to remember more of my life — being able to access a lot of these memories easier. So, to do that, I’ve been everyday writing a memory journal of just one singular memory that stuck out for that day, something that made me happy or was memorable, and logging it. I have a spreadsheet going. And I refer back to it. And that frequent access, and also the reflection that I give myself at the end of each day for three or five minutes, actually helps with that process. With Covid and lockdown and everything, every day almost seems the same. So, trying to find that unique thing actually helps separate a lot of the blurriness that happens because of this mundane time that’s been happening. I don’t want to end up like my grandmother who lost the memory of herself and her life. Because I think, ultimately, memory is who we are. That’s what makes us human. And without that, who are we, really? 

LEVITT: O.K., so back to those eight numbers that were so hard for me to remember at the break, can I remember them now? Well, I definitely remember very vividly that Taylor Swift was using a golf club to destroy my cell phone. So can I map those back to the numbers? I picked Taylor Swift because she’s 31 and the golf score I wanted to shoot was 63. And my area code is three-one-two. So the numbers were: zero-three-one-six-three-three-one-two. Wow. It’s so much easier. These tools are really, I have to say, amazing. It’s mind boggling how well they work and how hard it is to remember numbers in the abstract and how easy it is to remember people and places and things. So I hope you give it a try in your life. If you use it and it works or it doesn’t, I’d love to hear about it. 

*      *      * 

People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at Thanks for listening.

DELLIS: I would get a girl’s number and I wouldn’t write it down. But then, when I texted her later, that was impressive to her — he actually remembered it. He must be interested in me. 


Read full Transcript

Episode Video