Aside from new friendships and excitingly exotic new stamps in our passports, what do we most hope to take away from a trip?
No, it’s not thousands of photos we’ll never have the time to process - it’s actually the thing those photos get in the way of. But great memories are surprisingly tough to come by. Not because of the trips themselves, but because of the way our attention-jittery brains seem to retain anything these days. Knowing how to make a great memory is a critical skill for experienced travellers. So what’s the secret?
Here’s a lesson from the unlikeliest of directions.
It’s December 4th, 2016, and American chess Grandmaster Timur Gareyev is dozens of moves into a game against his human opponent. The next piece is repositioned, and Gareyev waits for someone to tell him what just happened.
He has no choice here. He can’t see the board, or his opponent, or anything - because there’s a blindfold over his face.
The only time he saw the board was right at the beginning, before the first move was made. Everything from then until now has relied on Gareyev’s imagination working in tandem with his astonishing memory.
Having been told what his opponent’s move was, Gareyev updates his inner imaginary chess board - and then moves to another game entirely. Now he’s up against someone else, in a different game that’s been going on just as long as the last one.
And after each player makes their move, the same happens again - and again.
This isn’t a new thing for Gareyev. In Texas in 2012, he blindfoldedly squared off against 19 opponents at the same time. In December of the same year in Hawaii, he pushed this up to 27 opponents (this time done in stages), and in May 2013 in St Louis, he did it against 33 other chess players. These were all good chess players, mind. When you’re making a record-breaking attempt, the players you face have to be up to a certain standard.
But this time, he’s really going for it. Starting at 8.30am in a room on the campus of the University of Nevada, Gareyev has been playing chess simultaneously against 48 opponents without being able to see any of their moves: 43 players in the room with him, and a further 5 players who are participating virtually. The existing world record is 46 simultaneous games blindfolded. He’s aiming for two boards better than that.
Will he beat the record?
Since you also can’t see what’s going on (because I’m telling this story with words, not pictures), I’ll add an extremely important detail to this scene. Between moves, Timur Gareyev is riding an exercise bike. And he does not have the stringbean musculature of the stereotypical weedy, bookish chess nerd - his jaw is chiseled, his upper arms are like tree-trunks, and he clearly has the stamina of an athlete.
This is entirely logical. Gareyev completes his final game at 3.39am on Sunday morning, an almost unbroken run of 19 hours and 9 minutes of nonstop blindfolded chess-playing on 48 different fronts - an incredible physical feat, up there with ultramarathon running and planking nonstop for 8 hours.
Professional chess players already know how important it is for them to stay fit. To everyone else, the idea of ripped Grandmasters comes as a surprise - and this relates to how we’re taught to approach great feats of intellect at school. Namely: sat down.
Education (lessons, lectures, seminars) are delivered as physically passive experiences. That’s bad news for our brains, which are parts of our bodies. It stands to reason that anything that gets our blood pumping a bit harder is going to help the many places where a lot of that blood goes, including the headquarters of our mind, just behind our eyes.
Your brain loves it when you get a bit of a sweat on - and finds a lack of it as debilitating as anxious worry:
“Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.”
- “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain” - Ellen Cushing, The Atlantic
Yet by studying while physically inactive (ie. sat down), we’re trying to force our brains to speed up while they’re growing sluggish like the rest of our body. It makes no sense. It’s mad. It needs to change.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of walking for creative thinking - for example, the “walking meetings” of Steve Jobs. But Gareyev’s example suggests something else - that exercise helps us remember stuff better.
For his world record challenge, Gareyev was using both his short-term and long-term memory in ways few of us will ever learn:
“Gareyev’s main strategy…was finding ways to make each game stand out in his mind. “I try to create a story,” he says. That way when he got back to a board, sometimes approaching an hour since his last move, his brain had something to latch onto.”
He did this with a combination of symbols from memory palace training; spontaneous, abstract imagery; and freeform associations tied to board number, player name, and his mental image of each opponent:
“If it’s board number 13, maybe I’ll play something risky because it sounds unlucky. Or board 21, that’s like blackjack so it has to be some kind of gamble,” he says. “If board 14 is a little boy and he plays Scandinavian, then that’s a theme. I capture a piece, it could be like a burst or a diagonal shape or I could see water flowing based on the theme.”
But it didn’t always go to plan:
“On board 18, facing one of the least experienced players at the exhibition, he got off track when she didn’t move her knight away from an attacking pawn. By the time he got back to that board, he assumed her knight must be somewhere else - and then for a while he couldn’t figure out what was happening in that game. “I literally blanked and then I was like what happens here?” he says. “I couldn’t figure out [what was happening] all the way until the middle game when I lost a piece.”
(These quotes are from “Blindfold Chess King Reveals His Memory Tricks” at Inverse.)
But at every stage there was the exercise bike, keeping his whole body in a state of motion - and keeping his mind racing fast enough to overcome the catastrophic effects of sleep deprivation.
In this way, he was able to implant short-term memories in a way that stuck, and access deeper, long-term memories that told him how to play chess, comprising thousands of games broken into smaller patterns of the boards, like pieces of a jigsaw.
No doubt about it. He’s a true mental athlete.
But you can do something like this too.
The best memories you’ll ever make - the ones where every detail will burn bright in your mind for the rest of your life - are going to have a lot to do with how physically active you are when you make them. This may even explain why walking the Camino is such an incredible recollection for so many people - it’s because the physical exertion of it made that memory deeper and richer than anything more sedentary they’ve ever done…
So if your trip involves a lot of sitting down, don’t forget the value of regularly making that effort to stretch your legs. It’s not just about alleviating those little aches and pains. It’s also about putting yourself into a physical state where you’ll remember this trip properly. It’ll help you be fully here - not just right now, but any time in the future that you want to return via your memories.
In other words, it’s everything that matters about a great trip.
So put the camera down and walk around a bit, until you feel the blood pumping in your veins a little harder. You’ll be glad you did it later - and you’d make a Grandmaster proud.