OM277 - The Tibetan Memory Trick

This week, Ken and John talk about:

This topic has been requested by Ken's 2-years younger brother Nathan who recently started listening to The Omnibus after having listened to 1000 hours of the McElroys.

The Announcer's Test (OM277)

Ken reads the first few items of the Announcer’s Test:

  • One hen
  • two ducks
  • three squawking geese
  • four limerick oysters
  • five corpulent porpoises

Ken grew up with his dad doing this game in McDonald’s booths and car trips. He could rattle it off and they used it as a memory test that must have come from his Boy Scout youth where such a call-and-response thing is common.

John’s memory getting fuzzy (OM277)

John has a pretty good memory, but and he never prided himself on it until it was pointed out to him. A few years ago he started taking medication and he noticed it did have an impact on his memory, but at the same time he got close to turning 50. His memory was one of those things he didn’t know you could lose until he started to lose it because it had always been really sharp and he couldn’t compare it to anything else.

It started to feel a little fuzzy around the edges, which he had never felt, and he can’t decide if it is correlated with his increasingly bad eyesight and if he is just aging and everything is atrophying, or whether it is an effect of his medication. He doesn’t like to not have a short time memory! You start to see why senior citizens pretend not forgetting stuff and why getting old is super-irritating. Ken has a really good memory as well.

It would be frustrating at some point if you were not only trying to remember the word ”rehabilitate”, but trying to remember the difference between 1987 and 1997, or the difference between the toilet and the refrigerator. Podcast-listeners love it when the hosts cannot remember the name of something because they get to feel smart at home, like when they couldn’t remember Point Roberts. Ken had already noticed it in his late 30s. When he went to the GOAT tournament in early 2020 he felt like his memory wasn’t what it was while James Holzauer was 10 years younger and had access to all his soft brain cells.

It is a Flowers for Algernon scenario and every day you feel like you have lost it a little bit. Nobody notices having sharp eyesight, and you just always assume that if you learn something you would know it forever and it would always be right there at your fingertips, but at a certain age that is just not true anymore and Ken is not that different from most people. Our memory for the things we are interested in works perfectly for the first few decades of our lives and if you have some hard time remembering something, then you are just not that into it. Ken doesn’t think he has some magical fibers in his brain that give him a better associative memory.

John is constantly trying to disabuse Ken of the idea that he is normal, but Ken insists that while he is probably at some end of the bell curve, it is less so than you would think. He knows all the world capitals, but if you at some moment in your childhood were really interested in world capitals you would know them as well. John knows people who claim they never had a short-term memory. They don’t have the ability to retrace their steps of what they did that same day and recount all the conversations they had, all the things they saw, and the places they went, like John and Ken are able to do.

Ken thinks that John is much better at that, which is why John is such a good storyteller. Ken experiences flaky memory in that area all the time, which is why he doesn’t see himself that much as an outlier. He will misremember what they did two summers ago and whether that was the year they went to Yellowstone, or he will not remember where his keys are. With so many memory flaps during a day he thinks he might have a knack in one area, but there is nothing magical about his memory.

John’s autobiographical memory is very good. At one time Ken was on a special episode of John's show at The Rendezvous and John had walked down to the venue, which took 15 minutes, and then he told a 30 minute story about his 15 minute walk. He can see 3-4 things in the same span of time, but it will take more time to retell each one of those things. Also: Each one reminded him of three other things that happened in Bulgaria, which means his memory is an endlessly complex fractal. John still has that memory and he treasures it.

John’s daughter often says that she can’t remember a thing that happened 6 hours ago, but when someone says they can’t remember you can’t tell them that they do, and you can’t force them to or gaslight them into remembering. Just when they were upstairs before starting to record the show John asked her what you are trying to find when you add or subtract two fractions, what the number on the bottom is called, and she reacted like she had never heard the words fraction or denominator, although they had spent much of yesterday working on it. Then she started to tell the story and said you have to make the numbers the same by finding the lowest common denominator. She gaslights John all the time!

Hyperthymesia, Marilu Henner, Ken being in a documentary about Brad Williams (OM277)

Some people have a very keen autobiographical memory called hyperthymesia, which is the opposite of amnesia. Marilu Henner from Taxi is one of them and you can ask her what she did on May 20th, 1978 and she will tell you she had a pastrami sandwich for lunch, but she had ordered corned beef and they gave her the wrong one. John can’t do that, but he loves Marilu Henner. There isn’t a late-1970s sitcom where he doesn’t have some crush that he still thinks of four times a day. Her performance in Johnny Dangerously affected him profoundly for the rest of his life and she is still a star and an exercise guru or a dietician or she sells juggling equipment or something.

There might only be a few hundred people who can do this, but she is the one who went on the Tonight Show and talked about it, so people who had that gift realized that it is a thing when they saw her, while before that they thought they were just weird. Ken’s screenwriter friend Eric Williams has a brother called Brad Williams who can do this. You can mention any date and he will tell you which classes he had.

He is not just reading a file back in his head because he has to do some work, like: This was his Junior Year of college, it was spring semester, which means he had already switched majors and wasn’t taking Jazz class anymore. He can keep drilling down and it will end with lunch. Eric made a documentary about it called Unforgettable and Ken was a part of it by playing some chronologically themed music trivia against his brother and Brad just wipes the floor with Ken (Trailer, Amazon, Wikipedia).

John would love to have that ability. He can do it to a certain point, but he can’t go back to what he had for lunch.

Getting carried away by your memory (OM277)

In the life of Ken Jennings, could there be possibly any trauma greater than being super-bored by his dad talking to waitresses about model trains? Are there intrusive thoughts that he has to chase out, churning on bad memories? Yes, it is usually some dumb anecdote of something awkward he said to a girl in 1992, or something related to childhood insecurities, like a time in first grade when he felt left out on the playground. He is pretty good at not thinking about those memories, which is what every therapist would tell you to do, and that also ties in with what John already thinks about Ken and repression.

John will not chase his own tail forever on a bad memory, but he will sit long with it past the point when it starts sapping him of strength. He will replay and refight arguments and churn on something bad until he tells himself: ”Wait a minute! What are you doing? You have brought yourself to a place where your fists are clenched, your shoulders are hunched, and you are thinking about something that happened in the 1980s. Get back!”

Yesterday Ken was sitting out in the sun reading a book and after half of the book he went on his phone for some reason and started going back through his own Twitter. He doesn’t know why, but part of his brain was thinking: ”Why are you doing that? You are back 3 weeks now, cracking yourself up with your old tweets, but you got to finish this book!”

It went on for 15 more minutes and part of his brain said: ”These are some good tweets!” while another part said: ”This is the second most masturbatory thing you could be doing! Read your book!” It was disturbing to see how his brain could get away from him, but anybody with any compulsory diction will say: ”No, that is not weird, Ken! Of course our brains can do that!”

John’s brain gets away from him all the time and he can get lost in the labyrinth of memories good and bad, although it is not always related to memory. Ken’s memory is a geography and even factual things tend to be organized by place, not that he can wander through it like Sherlock Holmes on the BBC show, but his dreams will often take place in repeating imaginary topographies, like some part of Seattle that doesn’t exist but where he had gone to multiple times in his dreams.

If he for example reads something about Ecuador he will find himself in a 1970s educational Big Blue Marble type TV show where his brain zooms in on Ecuador and suddenly he is thinking about Equator, the Incas, Mount Chimborazo, and Tin Tin, and he can’t get away from it because there is a little planet Earth in his head. It is fun and Ken enjoys factual memory. For John it often takes the form of verbal storytelling in his head. His memory is not as much a place as it is like a Mayan Calendar: a flat circle with lots of dragons and hieroglyphs. Whenever he is in a memory it is being narrated to him and the story is being told as he is also seeing pictures.

Memorizing literature (OM277)

Boris Johnson's talkshow parlor trick is that he can recite the Aristeia (Iliad) in Greek. He recently was on a British talkshow that was all loosh and tousled. They had not spent any money on their set, but it was just some chairs in front of a blue background, and when the presenter asked him some question about his education he started to speak in Greek in a public school boy charm and the presenter and the audience were just falling over themselves with delight. He gave the impression of being fluent and he had memorized 4 straight minutes in Ancient Greek. Commentators have of course said that his Greek is bad, but it is a pretty cool little trick.

The men in John’s family all knew Shakespeare to a certain extent because it was taught in school. Ken can still remember ’Twas the Night Before Christmas he had to learn in Elementary School and the Romeo and Juliet Soliloquy. His dad would memorize things for fun and he could do whole sketches by Monty Python or The Two Ronnies. John can do some Monty Python, some Robert Frost, and some little poems and bits that stuck.

Ken can do a lot of novelty songs that his dad used to play on the guitar. His childhood sounds extraordinary! John pictures him with his Korean baseball league hat on, sitting in front of the TV, watching Korean baseball while his dad is in the background.

Yesterday Ken tweeted about Korean baseball and within two hours he had an email from ESPN asking him to get up today at 5am and do Korean baseball commentary. Ken told them that all he had was all in that one sentence tweet about the OB Bears and the Haitai Tigers of the 1980s. ESPN is desperate for any American who can speak to Korean baseball.

Learning words through reading (OM277)

When John was young he made a point out of being able to articulate, which often works against him in the same way than it does for a lot of people who learned through reading in that he will put an extra syllable in the word and he will articulate letters that aren’t pronounced (for example ”Soulviet” or ”Tijuana”) There are people in his own family who pronounce their last name Rod’rick, but John is a real stickler for the fact that it is a 3-syllable last name and he has practiced it when he was young. The rhythmic nature of language has always intrigued him, he tries to speak with a rhythmic bounce, and he would not miss an opportunity to articulate consonants that are there.

Ken has a little gap between his front teeth because he didn’t wear his retainer long enough and as a result he is getting lazy sibilant ”s” except if he is really trying. John says ”airbuddy” instead of ”everybody”, but that is a regional accent. People in Berlin are infuriated about Austrians and Bavarians because they slur German until it is unintelligible and their diction is soft compared to Northern German.

One time John was at a cocktail part in Germany and he was enthralled by a passionate argument between half a dozen Germans about the various dialects in Germany that was mostly about accent and pronunciation. It made him think about the way he speaks and the regionalisms in America.


Ken joined Twitter in November 2008.

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