The Penguin Press, 2011, 307 pages
Foer's unlikely journey from chronically forgetful science journalist to U.S. Memory Champion frames a revelatory exploration of the vast, hidden impact of memory on every aspect of our lives.
On average, people squander 40 days annually compensating for things they've forgotten. Joshua Foer used to be one of those people. But after a year of memory training, he found himself in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even more important, Foer found a vital truth we too often forget: In every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.
Moonwalking with Einstein draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human remembering. Under the tutelage of top "mental athletes", he learns ancient techniques once employed by Cicero to memorize his speeches and by Medieval scholars to memorize entire books. Using methods that have been largely forgotten, Foer discovers that we can all dramatically improve our memories.
Immersing himself obsessively in a quirky subculture of competitive memorizers, Foer learns to apply techniques that call on imagination as much as determination - showing that memorization can be anything but rote. From the PAO system, which converts numbers into lurid images, to the memory palace, in which memories are stored in the rooms of imaginary structures, Foer's experience shows that the World Memory Championships are less a test of memory than of perseverance and creativity.
At a time when electronic devices have all but rendered our individual memories obsolete, Foer's bid to resurrect the forgotten art of remembering becomes an urgent quest. Moonwalking with Einstein brings Joshua Foer to the apex of the U.S. Memory Championship and readers to a profound appreciation of a gift we all possess but that too often slips our minds.
Non-fiction "micro-histories" written by journalists exploring some tiny subject area that they weren't an expert on before they started writing often produce lots of interesting anecdotes and a lot of risible conclusions. I like Mary Roach's books, but hard science they ain't.
This is one of the most memorable (heh) books in that genre I've ever read. It is way cool. There is probably not much in this book that's new to anyone who's made a serious study of brain science and human cognition, but if you're just a typical layman, you will probably learn quite a lot that you didn't know about memory and the way the brain works.
Joshua Foer (who is the younger brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer) was a fresh journalism graduate literally living in his parents' basement when he wrote an article for Slate about the U.S. Memory Championship. He was so fascinated by the people he met and by the techniques memory champions used, he talked a publisher into advancing him money for a book. Moonwalking with Einstein is partly a one-year memoir of his own experience training to become a memory champion, but since he does the background research on how memory works, he shares a lot of history and science in the process.
The first thing he demonstrates is that those people who can do freakish things like memorize a phone book or recite the stats on every baseball player in major league history are not special. They don't have extraordinary memories, and most of them aren't geniuses. They are just using a particular set of techniques - what nowadays we might call "tricks," but techniques which have been known for thousands of years, and which used to be used by all educated persons.
There were no other survivors.
Family members arriving at the scene of the fifth-century-B.C. banquet hall catastrophe pawed at the debris for signs of their loved ones - rings, sandals, anything that would allow them to identify their kin for proper burial.
Minutes earlier, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos had stood to deliver an ode in celebration of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman. As Simonides sat down, a messenger tapped him on the shoulder. Two young men on horseback were waiting outside, anxious to tell him something. He stood up again and walked out the door. At the very moment he crossed the threshold, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed in a thundering plume of marble-shards and dust.
He stood now before a landscape of rubble and entombed bodies. The air, which had been filled with boisterous laughter moments before, was smoky and silent. Teams of rescuers set to work frantically digging through the collapsed building. The corpses they pulled out of the wreckage were mangled beyond recognition. No one could even say for sure who had been inside. One tragedy compounded another.
Then something remarkable happened that would change forever how people thought about their memories. Simonides sealed his senses to the chaos around him and reversed time in his mind. The piles of marble returned to pillars and the scattered frieze fragments reassembled in the air above. The stoneware scattered in the debris re-formed into bowls. The splinters of wood poking above the ruins once again became a table. Simonides caught a glimpse of each of the banquet guests at this seat, carrying on oblivious to the impending catastrophe. He saw Scopas laughing at the head of the table, a fellow poet sitting across from him sponging up the remains of his meal with a piece of bread, a nobleman smirking. He turned to the windows and saw the messengers approaching as if with some important news.
Simonides opened his eyes. He took each of the hysterical relatives by the hand and, carefully stepping over the debris, guided them, one by one, to the spots in the rubble where their loved ones had been sitting.
At that moment, according to legend, the art of memory was born.
This dramatic retelling of the invention of the "Palace of Memory" is probably apocryphal (though Simonides of Ceos was a real person), but the art of memory was known and widely used by the ancient Greeks, and books on training your memory continued to be published all the way through the Middle Ages. It was really the printing press that spelled the end of memorization as a standard skill learned by all educated persons. Socrates warned about this back when writing was the new-fangled technology all the kids were using; he believed writing would never be useful for actually passing on knowledge, only at best a way to prompt one's memories. He was wrong about that, of course, but he feared that writing would lead people to stop remembering information altogether, and, in the sense that he meant it, he was right. (He also thought this would lead to moral and intellectual decay, but of course griping about how society is going to hell in a handbasket was old even in Socrates' day.) Now memorizing entire books is seen as a freakish talent (and one of little use), but people like Tony Buzan have gotten rich basically teaching the same techniques that Simonides supposedly invented.
As interesting as the history of the art of memory is, it's how it's used and how it actually works in the brain that I found most interesting. Foer describes the basic techniques, and some of the modern innovations used by competitive "mental athletes," and explains how to do it well enough that you can actually practice them a little. I did, and damned if it didn't work! I had a particular interest in learning how to memorize go games. A couple centuries ago, memorizing an entire go game (which may consist of over 200 moves) from start to finish was considered a remarkable feat. Today, professional players routinely memorize dozens of games, their own and those of great masters.
So, I started trying to memorize a game:
I found a memory palace does indeed work. However, developing mine well enough to memorize an entire game would take a lot of work, and that's the problem with memorization — it's a skill that really does work, but like any other skill, you have to practice, a lot, to get really good at it. And how much time do I really want to spend memorizing games that I can easily download and play out on a computer?
And that's the same conclusion Joshua Foer came to: nowadays, we have externalized memory so much that we use our brains in fundamentally different ways than people used to. We now train our brains to be indexes and query engines, rather than libraries. Rather than learning vast quantities of information, we become good at knowing how to find the information we want. Socrates would have found this appalling, and to this day it's a debate in education: is it more important to teach kids facts, or teach them how to assemble facts and do things with them? Arguments can be made that the pendulum has at various times gone too far in either direction, from the rote drill-and-kill methods that predominated into the 20th century, to today when it seems that many high school students graduate knowing very few facts, but being whizzes at using Google.
Foer talks to educators, memory experts, brain scientists, and of course, memory champions, getting their perspectives on how using your memory affects the function of your brain and how the function of your brain affects memory. He interviews some of those unusual individuals with abnormal memories: one man who literally cannot retain new memories, and so remembers nothing that has happened to him in the past few decades. If you introduce yourself to him, you are a stranger again a few seconds later. There are also famous individuals like Kim Peek, the "rain man," whom Foer interviews, as well as one supposed "savant" whom Foer exposed as a fraud -- a very talented fraud who became good enough at the ancient art of memory to fool brain scientists. (I was amused that one of the scientists he fooled was Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading proponent of evolutionary psychology whose strong hypotheses were taken apart by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender.)
This was just a really interesting book. In the chapter called "The OK Plateau," Foer examines what it takes to become an "expert," which it turns out is also related to memory. Going back to my go obsession, why is that teenage go professionals can blow away avid amateurs who have been playing go at a pretty serious level for decades? This is a common phenomenon in every skilled endeavor — people who have been doing it for years are routinely upstaged by relative newcomers. Is it because the more talented youngsters are prodigies with superior natural ability? Sometimes, but usually not. So why does one person become a world-class expert after doing something for only a few years, while most people remain mediocre after doing it all their lives, when by and large the mediocre people are no less intelligent or naturally talented than the expert?
I highly recommend this book. You may even want to start learning how to construct your own memory palace.
Verdict: This was an utterly fascinating book. I genuinely learned a lot of interesting and useful things from it, and for a green journalist writing about brain science (something that would normally kick my skepticism meter up to eleventy), Joshua Foer does a great job of sticking mostly to what is known and yet uncovering a lot of stuff you probably didn't know. A great book for anyone who thinks they have a bad memory, who reads a lot, or who is interested in how the brain stores information.
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