Memory Masters And Musical Chairs
Feature interview with Ron White
You’re not you’re not thinking, Oh no, my jackets gone. Where’s my jacket? Oh my gosh, where’s my jacket? You think to yourself, okay, my jacket is in the other room. in that chair. You go, you get the jacket, you leave. But there’s no panic involved because you remember placing the jacket in that chair.
D: Baby brain, old age and distraction. Are these just excuses for not living up to our brain potential? Why can we remember songs from decades ago, but lose our car keys in the drop of a hat? And what do chairs and other house furniture items have to do with memory or music?
I’m Dene Menzel and welcome to The Music Is Life Project.
If you’ve ever misplaced an item, struggled to deliver a speech, or forgotten to buy items off the shopping list, this is the episode for you! Today we have with us Ron White, 2 time USA memory champion, and author of How To Improve your Memory in 30 Days. Ron has also – and I quote here – “memorised the entire US constitution – 4543 words in total – and he proved it by writing it from memory as a demonstration. Bringing Ron’s expertise in brain training, together with my love for music, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun today. Welcome Ron White to the Music Is Life Project!
R: No, Dene – thank you for having me! This is very exciting! I was happy to get the invitation and I’m looking forward to it!
D: Well, like I said, Ron, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this today and – let’s start with the mind. You know I do a lot of work with people, and music’s my jam, obviously. Now, we all know about brain recall but you really dive in there into helping people improve their memories. So this is going to be quite a fun show today, almost like the start of a great joke – you know like… A memory expert and a muso walk into a bar – with that sprinkling of science meets psychology meets music. So let’s just start with a little bit about you firstly for our listeners who don’t quite know who you are. I’m in Australia here and we’ve got a lot of Aussie listeners. So can you let us know a little bit about you and what you actually do?
R: Well, my name’s Ron White. I’m a 2 x USA memory champion. I used to hold the record for the fastest to memorise a deck of cards in the United States, and I’ve held some other records for numbers – an 167 digit number memorised in 5 minutes in the United States. But you know, I can list some the records I’ve done and some of the tournaments I’ve won or whatever of the accomplishments or memory feats, but really that’s not what I’m about. What I am about is that 29 years ago, I learned a memory system. I was an 18 year old kid and I just took this course, because I thought it was fun, or you know, cool and it was a system that really changed my life and it’s a system that I’ve spent the last 29 years teaching to other people. And what excites me is when I see my students, or people that I share with on this podcast take the techniques, implement them and improve their lives by improving their memory.
D: That really is an impressive bio you have there, Ron. I think we live in such a fast paced world juggling so many things in our lives. To be completely frank, you know sometimes I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night – so I am going to be listening in here quite intently. But firstly I going to be a bit cheeky and put you on the spot and see, how good your memory actually is. For those of you out there listening, this has actually not been planned, I’m putting Ron on the spot here – and I’m throwing him in the deep end here, and I’ve literally just shared my screen with Ron while I’m talking to you guys out there and given him 90 seconds on the clock to to memorise a list of items that I’ve come up with. It’s a random list of 50 song titles and artists and I’ve given him this time on the clock to memorise as many as he can. I don’t really care whether or not he gets them in order or not I just want to see how many he can remember.
D: So through the power of editing, we are back. It’s 90 seconds later and let’s see how he went.
R: Ok so I think I got to about 22 or something, I don’t know. Ok and so this might not be perfect but we’ll have some fun. So I think the first one on the list was Mission Impossible
R: and I don’t know is it Toni Basile, Basil, I don’t know the name.
R: Ah Wake Up Jeff, ah September
D: Mm hmm
R: Ah Stevie Wonder
R: Er.. Grease
R: Spice Girls
R: Living On A Prayer
R: Er Michael Jackson
R: Cyndi Lauper
R: And I don’t know how to say this one but I’ve heard the song – Nessun Doria, Nessun Doria
D: Nessun Dorma yes I’ll give you that one
R: And I don’t know how to pronounce this other one – like IACDC – I didn’t know what that was – Oh what that ACDC?
D: It was ACDC that was a bit of a typo for me so sorry!
R: Oh ok!
D: Oh look at that at that he’s working it out while he’s memorising
R: Yep no problem I figured it out! Ok so I remembered just a sequence of random letters ok so the next one was Waterloo
R: The next one was Footloose
R: And then Survivor
D: Uh huh
R: Money For Nothing
D: Keep going
R: Guns N Roses
D: Keep going
R: and Led Zeppelin and that was the last one I saw.
D: I am absolutely gobsmacked. That was a perfect score of 22 and – and he corrected my #14 typo of ACDC! I am super impressed! Ron – how did you do that?
R: Well it was magic!.. No
D: I would even say it was but – go on
R: No. So it’s a system of visualisation. So imagine this. Imagine you go to your friend’s house and it’s cold outside. So you’re wearing a jacket. And your friend says, Hey, Dene, you can put your jacket in that room. Over there, just lay it in the chair something. So you go into the next room, you lay your jacket in the chair, and then you hang out at your friend’s house for three or four hours. When it’s time to leave your friend’s house, you don’t panic. You’re not you’re not thinking, Oh no, my jackets gone. Where’s my jacket? Oh my gosh, where’s my jacket? You think to yourself, okay, my jacket is in the other room. in that chair. You go, you get the jacket, you leave. But there’s no panic involved because you remember placing the jacket in that chair. Well, about 2500 years ago, there was a man named Simonides in Greece and he was in a room and as the story goes, and I don’t know if this story is true or not, but I saw it on the internet so it probably has to be true right? They can’t put nothing fake on the internet. But as the story goes, this this he was in this room and the the roof collapsed and it killed everybody but hell – well about a couple days later, they’re pulling the rocks off the people and they say, hey, Simonides, can you tell us who these people were? Because we can’t recognise them anymore? And he said, “Well, you know, Dene was sitting there, Steve was sitting there, Lisa was” – these weren’t the names. This was Greece 2500 years ago, but he remembered where everybody was sitting based on on the location in the room. And that is the exact same principle of why you remember your jacket when it’s at your friend’s house and a chair. So he thought, wow, I can remember something if I visualise it in a location room. So he’s the guy who is known as the father of memory training, you know, it may have been in use before him 2500 years ago, but he’s known as the first to document it. Matter of fact, Cicero, who was a Roman politician, and a writer and philosopher 2000 years ago, he wrote a book and in that book, he referenced this exact story that I just shared with you. He told it the exact same way I told you. So I don’t know if the story is true or not. But I know 2000 years ago, Cicero was telling it exactly this way. Now, how does this all fit into, to what I just did? What I did is as us, by the way, I have an African grey talking parrot, and he is sitting to my left, and sometimes he talks and you might hear him and he just made some noise. So I’m clearing that up. But uh, uh, there he goes. So yeah, say, you know, I’m talking about you, don’t you? Uh, so when I saw these words on the screen, here’s what I did. I took the first word, saw it as a picture, so Mission Impossible, and then I visualised it on the first piece of furniture in my house. I took the second word, and I visualised it on a second piece of furniture, my house, and then I just walked around my house. So Dene, here’s an example. Give me a number between one and 22. And as you do look at your list and I’ll tell you what number it was. Or I’ll tell you what item was that number.
D: Really? Really ? Ok.. let’s go with number 13
R; Number 13 was the one I couldn’t pronounce the norm norm norm Desa.
D: Oh my gosh! I thought I was going to trick you with that one but no you got it! Wow and so quickly!
R: Yeah, so when you say 13 I just jumped to the 13th piece of furniture in my house, which is a bed. And then I actually went to a Billy Joel concert in October, and one of his singers sang that song. It was the first time I’d ever heard I first ever heard that song was last October. And so I went home and I google it and I searched it. And I listened to the whole song if you go type in that song plus Billy Joel, and you listen to his singing Oh, wow. It’s unbelievable even for me and non musician. So When I saw it on your list, I just imagined Billy Joel on my number 13 piece of furniture. And it told me it was that song.
D: Wow! That is absolutely unbelievable! I love that technique and I love that you use your house furniture to associate mass with the visual. In a way I was quite curious to see how you’d visualise music because these are all song titles and artists. For you to be finding experiences from your life to visualise and in a way shuffle and repurpose these images into like a filing cabinet in your mind is what you’re doing?
R: Exactly. So that’s What I refer to each piece of furniture as a mental file cabinet, a filing system. So just like you have files on your computer, these pieces of furniture are what I refer to as files in my brain. So anytime I want to remember something I inserted into one of the files. Last summer, I memorised the United States Constitution, you know, the legal document that founded the government, and it’s 4543 words. And for that, I used about 300 pieces of furniture, you know, so I had 15 words or so on each each piece of furniture in my brain.
D: So you can actually file phrases?
R: Yeah, phrases. You know, which is good because sometimes people want to memorise points or quotes or I guess song lyrics, but that’s great. Not the way people you know, I’m not a musician. That’s probably people don’t they probably want to feel the songs more than memorise them. I don’t know exactly but yeah. words, phrases, decks of cards, a numbers, anything that a person wants. Give speeches without notes. You don’t take the point the speech to point to your speech and give a speech without notes.
D: Just going there on song lyrics and melodies, and I’ll use jingles as a prime example – Now I can remember jingles from my childhood and I’m 43 now so there’s a bit of time since I’ve heard a lot of these jingles. But, we have a product here in Australia called Vegemite – looks like shoe polish, and I suppose for some it tastes like shoe polish. For our Aussie listeners it was all about being a Happy little Vegemite – that was the jingle, and even now while I’m talking to you, I can hear it playing in my head. Now is there any difference in what you do with brain training and how the brain process data – to how people can remember songs from years ago?
R: Yeah, you know, so I actually did a little research on this because, you know, I had an experience where I was driving down the road and a song came on the radio that I hadn’t heard in years. I mean, you know, it was popular 30 years ago when I was in high school, and you know, this was probably before your time, but it was a Vanilla Ice Ice Ice Baby, you know. And it comes on the radio and I’m like, singing all the words to Ice Ice, Baby. And then yeah, there you go. Look at that. You’re a dancer too. I thought “Wow, I can’t believe I remember that song.” I remember every word. And then oh, you know, like as a memory guy, why is that? I did a little research on it. And what I found was the the theories as why that happens is number one: the repetition you know of the of the song when it was out, you know, in 1991. I didn’t just hear it once it was on the radio. It was in every dance club, it was everywhere I went so repetition number one. Number two you know just the the rhythm you know that rhythm is something that strengthens your memory so that was another one – the rhythm. And sometimes emotion, you know emotion you can have tied to songs. You know maybe you you were your first girlfriend or or an important moment you’ve got your first car and you love driving that car and listening to that song. So emotion repetition, and all those really tie into remember, the rhythm of the song all really ties into our our memory.
D: That is truly intriguing and brings to mind an article I read about a month ago. The article was about how the human brain and its ability to recognise songs after hearing say, a one second snippet, and that article piqued my curiosity as to whether that was actually true. So about a month ago, I set up my own scientific experiment of sorts through my Music Is Life Project community on Facebook to see if that was indeed true. To do that, I created a video containing 60 songs of 1 second each and I asked my community to try that challenge and see how many of the songs that they could identify – if any. My opinion thoughts going into it was that this was plausible – that music has the ability to create this immediate brain recall. Just for balance, I was quite ready for anyone to quash my theory and prove me wrong. For those who tried it, we had quite a diverse range of results from 14 out of 60 which was our lowest score, right through to 58 out of 60, which was fascinating. And it prompted me to dig a little deeper, and find out why there was such a range in results. Wee found that song recall was on the higher end of the spectrum. There were more people who could identify a larger number of songs in the actual challenge, however it depended on two main factors – 1 was being familiar with the song – as you can’t identify a song you’ve never heard of of course, but secondly, how well they could actually associate the song titles to familiar tunes like some people, they recognised the tune. But some knew the song but they didn’t know the title so they scored lower on the spectrum just because of that, but that doesn’t also rule out that songs aren’t familiar. So it was quite an interesting challenge, because 1 second is really not a lot of time to process and identify a song, anyone would agree. But Ron, as you said before – by repetition, familiarity and connection to moments in our lives, it is possible for our brains to identify a song immediately. And through we could probably, like I do with the Vegemite jingle even, sing the next line of the lyrics, or hear them in our heads. We know what’s coming next, just as you did with Ice Ice Baby. For our music loving listeners who want to give my 60 songs in 60 Seconds challenge a go, I’ve pasted the link at the bottom of the podcast transcripts and I’d love to know how you fare. For Ron this has been a fascinating conversation with you. We are almost out of time, and I just wanted to finish off with a couple of questions in regards to memory. Especially for those who want to improve their memory in certain areas. My first question: We’re living in a world of technology now, and I see even with my daughter that we are relying so heavily on computers to fix up our spelling, our grammar. Our computers find definitions for us all in the click of a mouse. We’re texting in abbreviations and emojis. This is really different to how I grew up – My gosh – I’m sort of starting to sound like my grandma when I say this – “In my day, we didn’t use things like this. We looked things up in the dictionary!” – and my question is – is technology making our brains lazy?
R: Yeah, you know, so that’s that’s a question that I’ve wrestled with myself. And I definitely think it’s making our brains lazy in respect to some things.You know, in respect to being able to interact with other humans, you know, which actually that engages your brain. You know, socially talking to people is good for your brain. In terms of memorising numbers, like phone numbers, oh, it certainly made our brains lazy. In terms of you know, maps, you know, GPS remembers where you’re going happened to know where you’re going. Now, you don’t even have to remember the map of your town anymore. It just tells it just tells you where to turn. So in some sense, we have become very lazy. And on the other hand, on the flip side of that, you know, I saw a statistic and I’m and I don’t want I’m not going according to the numbers, because I don’t want to get it wrong. But the overall idea is this. In like 1900, well guess I am going to have to, quote numbers, you’ll get the idea, don’t you take the numbers. In like 1900 knowledge was doubling every, like 20 years. So what we knew in 1900, you know, by 1920, it had doubled well by like 1930. And again, to get the overall idea here, not the exact the exact numbers. By 1930, it was doubling every five years, and then by like, 1950 was doubling every three years. And then by 1980, it was doubling every one year. Today, the knowledge that humanity knows is doubling like in under a minute. I mean, it’s an astronomical number, and I’m not even gonna guess what the number is, but it’s astronomical. So I will say this. I do think technology is making our brains lazy in terms of some things but I also think we have so much more to remember now. Nowadays that maybe it balances out you know, maybe there’s maybe it balances out. Now that doesn’t mean everybody’s out there doing it. Just because knowledge is doubling doesn’t mean they’re learning more. But the potential to is there.
D: I’m pretty impressed there – I think that’s a really balanced explanation of what is happening in our brains with respect to technology I also agree with you that there is so much potential out there to learn even more. And so, I just wanted to go back to your book, Ron – How to improve your Memory in just 30 Days – can somebody really improve their memory in 30 days, even those who justify by saying – oh I’ve had a kids – I’ve got baby brain (I’ve used that one before) or I’m old, I can’t remember things like I did when I was younger – is there hope those that feel like they are a lost cause when it comes to memorising things?
R: Yeah, no, absolutely. You know, I that demonstration that you just saw me doing when I memorize those 22 words, you know, it was you know, you thought it was kind of cool to do that. Really, if you think about it, if what I was doing was just, it was just visualising stuff around the room. In order to do that, really all you would have to do is have 22 pieces of furniture, numbered in your house, you know, the desk, the bed, the TV, the dresser, in an order. So if you if you had pieces of furniture numbered in your house, and you worked through that process of doing that over, you could do it in a couple days. You could see it and you could see an improvement in your memory and two hours if you just worked on this system, a number of pieces of furniture in your house and practice visualising it, whatever you want to remember on those pieces of furniture, Two hours!
D: I am literally going to try that technique today – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scooted off to the supermarket and come back with with a bag full of things – sometimes things that I’ve added to the list, and I’ve gotten home and I’ve realised that I’ve forgotten to buy at least three items that I was supposed to get. So I am going to definitely, definitely start using that technique, and I’d love to know if anybody else gives that a go out there – what your results are. Also if you’d like to share this episodes with your friends and family who are struggling with memory – this is a great episode to do that with and also check out Ron’s book. For now, we are out of time and I just wanted to thank you so so much Ron, for your time and your lovely parrot- I know it’s getting late in the evening there in North Texas. It’s been so much fun having you here on the show.
R: No thank you it was an honour you’re a very, very pleasant person to talk to very nice person to talk to So, I hope to talk to you again one day.
D: For our listeners out there who are interested to learn more about Ron White’s techniques and improving your memory, or if you’d like to reach out and connect directly with Ron, you can do so via the links on our Podcast page at branthem.com.au/podcast
Loved this episode? We would love to hear from you via a review! And don’t forget, if you’d love to join the conversation, come and find us on out public group on Facebook under The Music is Life Project, where you can connect with other music lovers from around the world, sharing a bunch of stories, and ideas and some music related fun in there also that you can participate in.
Otherwise I’m Dene Menzel, signing off on another episode, have a magic week ahead and I’ll see you on the flip side!
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