Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

by on June 4, 2015

Joshua Foer’s incredible book is a mind-bending exercise in the fascinating art and science of mastering a superhuman memory

For many of us, memory is a tough beast to tame. We rely on on post-its, to-do apps and phone contacts to remember all aspects of our lives – from phone numbers to grocery lists.

And yet, rarely do we pause and consider how completely and thoroughly memory dominates our lives. Our sense of self – the core of our being – is essentially a collection of memories. Our identity is shaped by a trail of past experiences – we define ourselves based on where we were born, who we have loved, and where we have been.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer looks at memory and its deep connection to our lives through the curious lens of a Memory Championship. In a remarkable feat of storytelling, Foer’s book manages manages to be entertaining, informative, and useful.

Memory sport contestants do routinely remarkable things like memorizing over 80,000 digits of Pi, or multiple decks of 52 cards in a matter of minutes.

The book came about as a by-product of Foer’s journalistic assignment. Foer was writing a story about people with remarkable memories – people who participate in memory sports professionally. And memory sport is exactly what it sounds like: contestants do routinely remarkable things like memorizing over 80,000 digits of Pi, or memorizing multiple decks of 52 cards in a matter of seconds, or reciting epic poems word-for-word.

After meeting a handful of professional Memory Champions, Foer wondered if these people were born with amazing memories or if their skills were a product of exhaustive training. Was a great – remarkable, even – memory something that you could actually teach? Foer’s search for the answer led him to participate in the Memory Championship himself. Under the guidance of memory expert Ed Cooke, Foer decided that he would train for next year’s US Memory Championship.

Moonwalking with Einstein charts Foer’s amazing journey from regular-Joe to the US Memory Champion (he won). The book is simultaneously an anecdotal record of his endeavour, an exploration of memory and its place in history and our culture, and more importantly, perhaps, a collection of memory techniques that readers can employ themselves (which I tried – and which, I can testify, really do work).

The Secret to Remembering Everything

The heart of the approach to a ‘superhuman’ memory actually comes from an ancient text. Foer, and almost all other memory contestants employ an idea called the Memory Palace. A Memory Palace is a visualization of a physical place that you are intimately familiar with, such as your childhood home or your office or the walk down to your favorite coffee shop. Our brains, it turns out, are remarkably good at spatial memory. Think about how hard it is to remember a string of historical dates or tedious phone numbers, but how effortlessly easy it is to conjure up a mental image of your childhood room, even if you haven’t been there for years.

You use the Memory Palace to store things you need to remember. A grocery list, for example, can be stored in a memory palace of your apartment. Tomatoes at the elevator, garlic at the door, pound of butter at the kitchen counter, a loaf of bread in front of the TV, and so on. The second-half of the trick is converting these mundane items into something ridiculous and memorable. The tomatoes doing the tango dance at the elevator or the bread watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians on the TV, for example. The more ludicrous and vivid these images are, the easier it is to memorize them. And once you have imagined the strikingly visual images for each item in the to-do list and then placed them in a unique room or point in the Memory Palace, all you have to do take a walk through it. When you need to recollect something, just visualize the Memory Palace in your mind and walk through it, moving from room to room – and the objects you associated with them miraculously come up to you, just where you left them.

Try this technique the next time you go grocery shopping.

Other key ideas

Amidst all the technique and the training, Foer also ruminates on the nature of memory itself, and its curious interaction with our lives.

Here is Foer explaining how memory shapes our perception of time:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly.

The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly. Our subjective experience of time is highly variable. We all know that days can pass like weeks and months can feel like years, and that the opposite can be just as true: A month or year can zoom by in what feels like no time at all. Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events. Just as we accumulate memories of facts by integrating them into a network, we accumulate life experiences by integrating them into a web of other chronological memories. The denser the web, the denser the experience of time.

Memory also has a direct co-relation with intelligence and creativity. It might seem counterintuitive at first glance, but, as Foer beautifully articulates, memory and creativity are inextricably linked:

The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counterintuitive. Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment.

Foer also meditates on how memory shapes and informs our intelligence. The more we know, the more associations our brains form into a rich, complex web that is spans an interwoven network of cross-connected ideas. Memory is intimately linked with the capacity for intelligence:

Even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches. The people whose intellects I most admire always seem to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory (there are savants who remember much but understand little, just as surely as there are forgetful old professors who remember little but understand much), but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered.

People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.

All in all, Moonwalking with Einstein is a great read – thoroughly absorbing, entertaining and packed with a good number of memory techniques that anyone can teach themselves. Granted, not many of us will want to memorize thousands of digits of pi or gobble up decks of cards, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise to train our minds in one of our most incredible and now taken-for-granted abilities.

Find all the other ideas in Moonwalking with Einstein in our handy Ideas section.

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