Joshua Foer was a normal guy. But sometimes normal people can do very unusual things.

A recent college grad, Foer (pronounced “four”), lived with his parents while trying to make a go of being a journalist. He didn’t have a great memory; he regularly forgot important dates like his girlfriend’s birthday, couldn’t recall where he’d put his car keys, and forgot he had food in the oven. And in his work, no matter how hard he tried to catch himself, he still wrote its instead of it’s.

But Foer was amazed to find that some people seemed very different. They could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in only thirty seconds, or casually absorb dozens of phone numbers, names, faces, events, or dates. Give these people any random poem, and in minutes, they could recite it to you from memory.

Foer was jealous. These brilliant masters of memory, he thought, must have some unusual way their brains were wired that helped them easily remember prodigious amounts of data.

Journalist Josh Foer as he prepares to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. The ear mufflers and the pinholes in Josh’s eye mask help him avoid distraction, which is the competitive memorizer’s greatest enemy. This is a firm reminder that it’s best to focus without distraction if you really want to put something into memory.

But the memory aces Foer talked to each insisted that their previous, untrained ability to remember was perfectly average. Improbable though it seemed, these people claimed that ancient visualizing techniques were what enabled them to remember so quickly and easily. Anybody can do it, Foer heard repeatedly. Even you could do it.

And that goading is how, in one of the most unlikely scenarios Foer could have imagined, he found himself staring at a deck of cards as a top finalist at the U.S. Memory Championships.

“As educators, in our zeal to encourage students to form chunks rather than simply memorize isolated facts, we sometimes give the impression that memorization is unimportant. (‘Why should I memorize an equation that I can look up?’) But memorization of key facts is essential since it is these facts that form the seeds for the creative process of chunking! The important lesson is that we must continue jiggling and playing mentally with things we have memorized in order to form chunks.

Forrest Newman, professor of astronomy and physics, Sacramento City College