What memorizing a TED talk did to my brain

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Standing in the wings of the TED stage this week, waiting to give my first-ever talk at the conference, I had a bizarre experience. There I was, in my shirt and my jacket with my hands upturned, breathing in and out, shaking the fear out of my legs. And as I repeated the first line of my talk over and over (In late 2013, a San Diego high school sophomore named Olive opened up her Twitter account and noticed something strange…), I realized that I could see my talk, as clearly as if it were a Google Earth image in my brain. The words formed a landscape, with peaks and valleys and little streams running through it. And all I had to do, once I stepped out on stage, was to retrace its topography.

The strangest thing about TED, which is running this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, is not the four-figure price tag or earnest, almost cultish following. It's that almost everyone on stage has memorized their lines. At most conferences, you get a mix of people reading from PowerPoint decks, using teleprompters, or simply ad-libbing around loose outlines. But not at TED. Here, memory reigns.


Once, there was a grand tradition of oratory. Classical education placed a premium on rote memorization. But the educational theories that promoted memorizing Homer are outré now, and we worry much more about pumping out kids who can "innovate." The answers to most factual questions, millions of scientific papers, and all of our friends’ collective memories are a few presses of a smartphone screen away. Thanks to Google, Facebook, and Twitter, the need to remember discrete facts has all but disappeared.

All of which makes TED that much more interesting. For all its futurism and focus on innovation, TED talks are throwbacks to an era when people memorized and performed. Because the drama of TED, in person at least, is that a person on stage could screw up extremely badly, with no easy way to recover. The possibility of disaster is real.


My memory is notoriously bad. My brain is so often focused on abstract things on the Internet that I cannot be trusted to retain a request from living room to kitchen. I don’t know any phone numbers. I have to look up the security code on my credit cards every single time I make an online purchase. (I thought all this was normal until I realized that my wife not only had her security code memorized, but all of the credit card information.)


So when I got asked to contribute to Pop Up Magazine’s session at TED this year, I knew I was screwed. Out of desperation, I tweeted my followers, asking if there were some sort of memorization app I could use to make it easier on myself. The lovely downers on my Twitter feed all chimed in to inform me that there was no way to memorize a speech except practicing it over and over.

I had a week.

My wife advised me to break the text up into chunks and memorize each one. So I separated out my Word document and started at the beginning. I spoke to myself sotto voce, reading from the script. I stood up. I sat down. I checked Twitter. I read silently. I recorded myself giving the talk perfectly, then I played my voice back to myself as I drove and ran. Once I started to get it down—maybe 48 hours in—I started to give the talk in all kinds of weird ways. I gave the talk while running and while riding a bicycle, figuring that having to focus my mind while my physical body was busy would help me out. I put myself in a plank yoga pose and went over the most difficult passages.


All the live practice began to reshape the talk itself. Every difficult phrasing got changed or cut. Other people’s direct quotes were the hardest to memorize, so I cut some of those, too. At one point, I had to recite a series of strange computer-generated phrases, which I would not recommend putting in your memorized talk. Without semantic meaning, strings of words are so, so hard to remember.

With a few days to go until my TED talk, I started highlighting the text. No highlight meant that I didn’t have it down. Gray meant that I pretty much had it down. And light blue meant that I had it down cold, and could probably do it while being fired out of a cannon through a flaming ring and into a pool full of crocodiles. It took a long time to turn the whole text blue.


On the night of our rehearsal, there were some technical difficulties and I didn’t get a chance to do my whole talk on the stage. But I went out, had a beer, came home, and did the whole thing to myself in the mirror.

The next night, there I was on the TED stage. I looked down at the people on the couches clustered around the stage looking up at me, waiting for me to talk. It was very, very quiet.


And then, the words fell out of my mouth one after the other. They sounded bright and cheery. My feet stayed planted (“you're like a tree” a friend had helpfully told me) and before I knew it, I was halfway through the introduction of my talk, and running downhill easily. After all the memorization work I'd done, performing this speech felt like swinging a racquet or shooting a basketball, like dancing a routine you know perfectly. The speech had become a literal part of me, encoded in the neural connections of my brain.

Memorization, I realized, is a place where the mind learns to cope with the body. Consciously, we want to remember something, but that's not sufficient to embed information in the networks of the brain. We have to earn the memories we want.


I once interviewed a memory champion named Chester Santos, who was also an avid tennis player. And he told me that the way he memorized so prodigiously was to imagine himself walking through the physical space of his racquet club. To remember something, he said, all you had to do was to go to the right room and look in the right place.

Memorizing a speech is slightly different, I think. The speech itself becomes the room. What writers call structure becomes a literal structure that helps you navigate from section to section. What writers call rhythm becomes a textural memory aid that helps the words all flow out in the right order. One’s very breath becomes organized by the breaks in the sentences and paragraphs.


In a world filled with information-processing machines, it’s easy to think of our own minds as detached from the biological substrate of our neurons. But there are physical connections being made as we form memories. And locking in a whole speech requires some heavily reinforced networks.

Maybe this is what makes TED talks compelling to millions of people. We are watching people prove that they have transformed their own brains.


Or, you know, not.

Up on stage during TED, I was coasting through the talk I'd memorized. I’d made it through all the triple lutzes and triple axels and was just doing the little dancey parts before the triumphal finish. Satisfaction began to course through my body. I was so relieved. And then, of course, I flubbed my last line.