Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Genre: Non-fiction, memory, psychology, humor, you will be too lazy to do any of this in your daily life.
Rating: 4.23 out of 5 stars
Summary: After covering the U.S. Memory Championship, journalist Joshua Foer becomes intrigued with the human ability to remember, and spends the following year of his life researching and practicing to be the next U.S. Memory Champion.
Part memoir, part history lesson, part psychology course, Moonwalking with Einstein is an amusing look at the world of memory competitions and an intriguing study in the capabilities of the human mind.
If the name Joshua Foer sounds familiar, it’s probably because his brother is Jonathan Safran Foer, author of bestselling novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Because of Jonathan, I had an extremely awkward conversation with my ex-boss about how he keeps memories in Ziploc bags. Thankfully I have nothing against Joshua (no Safran) Foer, who helped me memorize a random stranger’s shopping list.
In the driveway of my childhood home there is a giant jar of pickled garlic, on the porch is Claudia Schiffer bathing in a swimming pool of cottage cheese, in the living room where we used to keep our Christmas tree is peat smoked salmon. Next to it on the maroon couch are six bottles of white wine having up-tight conversations with one another. On the side table hanging from a lamp are three pairs of brightly coloured socks, three women are hula-hooping on our dining room table. In our kitchen where I used to mess around with Play-Doh a man in a snorkel is about to dive into our kitchen sink while a dry ice machine is on full blast next to him. My father is at the kitchen table on the computer, emailing a she-male named Sophia.
That is a memory palace that Joshua Foer and his memory coach Ed Cooke ingrained in my mind when I read Moonwalking with Einstein. It is pretty impressive that I remember this considering I read about these items last week yet I can’t recall what I ate for breakfast two days ago.
Basically, a memory palace is a 2500 year old mnemonic technique created by Simonides of Ceos who also referred to this technique as the “art of memory”. The premise is this, you take the things you want to remember and place each of these things in your memory on a specific pathway. This imagined space within your mind is the memory palace, and to recall the list one only needs to retrace the steps you took placing these items there. It is easiest to use a well known space such as a childhood home or a current residence. The more bizarre and ridiculous you make these memories, the easier it will be to remember them.
This is just one of the techniques that Foer discusses in the book, which focuses on his journey to win the U.S. Memory Championship, a day long event with requires memorizing the order of decks of cards, the text and punctuation of a poem, the names and faces of strangers, random list of words, and other such feats of mental dexterity. And as Foer quickly discovers, these mental athletes are regular people with regular memories, and as he proves, anyone can use their techniques to memorize vast amount of information. Although you might not want to spend your short time on this earth learning parlor tricks.
The hardest and least useful skill is the poetry memorization. It’s difficult to build a memory palace for a poem because a lot of the words are more symbolic than concrete, and capitalization and punctuation counts toward your score. In my academic career my fellow Bibliomantics and I did a lot of memorization. In high school we had to memorize Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. I remember the lines that Adam Sandler recited in Billy Madison, about four lines in the middle, and the words “bare bodkin”. Even less can be said of the opening to Beowulf I had to memorize in Old English. I recall, Hwæt! (What) We Gardena in geardagum (geardagum = year)… þæt wæs god cyning (that was a good king). That’s all I remember out of 11 lines, and I couldn’t even recall how to spell it. Rote memorization is not the way to go in a memory competition.
In addition to the various memory techniques found within, Foer also researches individual cases of memory. There is the reigning memory champ Ben Pridemore, who can memorize the “order of 1,528 random digits in an hour” and the order of a deck of playing cards in only 32 seconds. He also knows 50,000 digits of pi. There is the reporter referred to only as “S”, who has synesthesia, a disorder in which words have “color, texture, and taste” who seems unable to forget information whether it be important or not (if you watch “Weeds”, it is also the disease Doug suffers from). Foer also discusses people with horrible memories, such as EP, who can only hold onto his current, most recent thought. His past memories are still intact, but the last president he remembers is Roosevelt. He is pretty much the saddest AND cutest little old man ever.
The book itself is very very very thorough and there’s a lot of information to take in, which can be overwhelming at times. But I got to learn a lot of fun vocabulary, like the phonological loop, which is the inner thoughts someone has inside their head and the OK plateau, which is the point where a person levels out on their accomplishments and no longer improves, as with typing or driving. In the 50’s they would have called it the A-OK plateau.
-Very readable, but still thought provoking (learning is fun!)
-Who knew there was such a thing as a memory championship?
-Lots of interesting case studies of people and their memories
-There is a dinosaur on the cover of this book
-The history side can get a tad tedious (i.e. BORING)
-You will want to train your memory, but you will ultimately be too lazy to do it
While the book is an interesting look into the world of memory and the techniques one can use to train it, a lot of Foer’s discoveries cannot really be harnessed in every day life. You will still lose your keys, where you parked your car, and you will inevitably forget that important birthday/anniversary/holiday. Thankfully, there’s an app for that.