When I was a kid I read a book called “The Memory Book” (that might not have been it’s name, ironically I can’t remember, though I think I still have it somewhere, but I’ve forgotten where I put it). It was a system for remembering various lists via a few techniques, but the one that stuck with me was learning the 50 states of America in alphabetical order, by coming up with mental images that connected the words so they would flow easily in your mind. I later used this system to help me learn the genealogy of Christ (though that has become so second nature now, that I no longer think about the linking images when I recite it).
Now that I know I have aphantasia I was interested to work out exactly how I did it. Though the condition doesn’t stop me imagining something, just literally picturing it (and I can still bring to mind faces or pictures, just not as solid images, but as fleeting flashes that are sort of behind the view of my mind’s eye. If I close my eyes all I see is blackness, but if I think of the faces of my kids or a scene from a film, there is the briefest memory somewhere behind what I am (not) looking at. It’s hard to explain, but I can still make associations between weird concepts, even if they are mainly just me thinking about the thing in words. So when relearning the 50 states this week I imagine Al Murray banging his drums (Al a bammer) and then telling the I’ll ask her joke to Harry Hill (which is all I need for Alaska and Arizona. Then Harry Hill is on the Ark (I could imagine him sawing, but in this instance - unlike the genealogy - I only need a prompt to recall the info that I already know, so an Ark is all I need for Arkansas). The first link I actually really need comes next. I imagine two California Raisins on the Ark, then two beetles (Colarado) eat them and then connect (some cuts if you want) and then Delia Smith (a bit of a leap from Delaware, but it’s all I need) is using those cuts of meat to cook with, before preforming with Flo Rida (I don’t really know what Flo Rida looks like, but the image of the chef doing some music is enough - also the alphabetical nature of the task helps you work out which state might be next). And so on. My favourite scene comes with North Dakota, which makes me think of Mark Clapham meeting John Lennon outside of the Dakota building and saying “Oh hi oh” and then Lennon says “OK? (Lahoma)” and Chapman says “I’ve a gun. (Oregon)”. It’s a tragedy that Lennon was murdered but I think it would soften the blow for him a little if he knew the event would help a man remember all the states that begin with O, forty years later.
The images have to be surprising or weird or shocking so that they stick in the mind. It definitely works. I can reel off the 50 states now. Too late for the Taskmaster task - how cool would it have been to just tell Alex Horne all 50 in alphabetical order? Not at all obviously- but ready for Celebrity Tenable. I might try and do the state capital next. And then dedicate the rest of my life to learning all the available lists. Because I am cool.
But aphantasia is not an impediment to memory, though I don’t know if I have always had this problem, as I only realised I was different a year ago. Was I able to visualise as a kid? My memory has always been very strong (especially when I was younger) and I feel that I could often visualise a page I’d read and focus in on the bit I needed (but maybe I was still only doing that in the way I would today, without an actual solid image in my brain). I have good academic qualifications, but I don’t know how much of that is down to actual intelligence and how much is down to me having the ability to quickly commit information to my memory banks and then quickly recall it when necessary. Though to be fair, this ability is declining with age.
Anyway, I am delighted to have all 50 states back in my brain again (though they are going to fuck it up if they let DC in). And if brain archaeologists ever dig into my brain and find the image of Louis Theroux eating KFC, I hope they will understand why.
If I can do this, even though I have no proper mental images, then you, with your perfect working brain can do it too.
Tonight I interviewed the amazing Catie Wilkins for RHLSTP. I didn’t need to do quite as much research as usual (though I still found out stuff I didn’t know) and it was fun to be not only in the same room as my guest, but to be only inches away from them. I haven’t flirted with a guest like this since oh, I don’t know, last week with Anneka Rice. And when you listen you'll get a chance to find out if Catie would replace me with a robot and whether pizza delivery is as exciting as porn films will have you believe. I had worried this interview might be weird or destroy our marriage, but we seemed to end up liking each other the same or even more by the end.
Or on video
Come and see RHLSTP live at the Clapham Grand (or pay for the live stream) Guests and ticket link here