Thursday, March 14, 2013

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Have you ever wondered about those people who can remember names, phone numbers, birthdays and odd facts with ease? Some people have prodigious memories. How do they do it?

Joshua Foer began to ask these questions when he covered the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship for Slate. Within a few minutes, the mental athletes at this event could memorize a poem, a deck of cards or a thousand random numbers. A year later, he returned to that event as a competitor, and he won. Walking with Einstein is Foer’s recounting of his year of training in memory techniques and his exploration of the meaning of memory.

This book is not a manual on memory techniques, though Foer briefly describes them. You can find them described in more detail elsewhere. Many of the techniques are ancient, or elaborations on ancient techniques. The discovery of the primary technique is attributed to Simonides, a Greek poet who lived about 500 years before Christ. After the collapse of a banquet hall, which he narrowly escaped because he stepped out to greet a messenger, he discovered he could picture in his mind where every guest had been seated, and was able to identify the location of the bodies. Later authors built upon this idea of a “memory palace,” and it was widely used before the invention of printing.

The basic idea is simple. We have amazing capacities to remember locations and images, so just tie things we want to remember to an image and place. First, pay attention to what you want to remember (it may only take a second). Next, form a memorable image that will remind you of the thing you want to remember. The more outrageous the image is the better it will work. Serious mnemonists develop systems of images. Finally, “place” those images in a memory palace, preferably some real place you know very well. It turns out that the main thing may be the attentiveness all of this technique requires and the multiple paths to remembering you create.

Like Foer, I was disappointed that feats mental athletes perform are not things I want to do. I’d like to be better at remembering names, but all I may need to do to improve is pay attention. I’d like to be able to remember passages of text, but this is very difficult even using mnemonics.

The more interesting thing in the book turns out to be Foer’s exploration of the place of memory in our history and culture. In an age before books, and especially before indexed books, it was very difficult to store information anywhere outside of memory. Even if you read something on a scroll, it would not be easy to find it again. If you wanted quick access to something, you needed to memorize it. People would intensely study the few texts they had and got to know them very well, possibly memorizing them entirely.

Books made accessing information much easier and therefore remembering less important. The Internet has made tons of information accessible in an instant. We have shifted away from valuing intensive study to valuing extensive study, or being widely read. We don’t know as deeply, but we know how to access information for a variety of places.

Memory is not a valueless art in our age. Memorizing techniques engage the imagination to create memorable images. In reverse, our memories are the feedstock of our imaginations. Our creativity, innovation, and invention draws upon the things we remember and the many connections we form between memories. For a creative mind to invent, it needs to be stocked with useful memories.

Similarly, memory has value in defining ourselves. Who we are as an individual is largely defined by our habits and memories. In a sense, the more we remember, the fuller are our lives. Shared memories are part of how we relate to others, and shared knowledge is important to culture.

I started reading this book with an interest in improving memory. My takeaway ends up being that I want to be more attentive to life. I want to form the most vivid memories I can of the people and events that are important to me.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

If you want to improve you memory, you may also be interested in a fish oil supplement.

Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011.