Review: Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 320 pp. $26.95 (hardcover).

moonwalking-einstein

The U.S. Memory Championship is an annual event at which contestants compete to memorize a list of 300 random words, 1,000 random digits, and a shuffled deck (or two) of playing cards. In 2005, Joshua Foer went to the event expecting to meet, and write an article about, a group of savants. However, the contestants he interviewed claimed that they were merely average people who started off with average memories, and that anyone could learn to do what they do.

These claims were tough for Foer to swallow. But after many there encouraged him, Foer decided to attempt what he thought was impossible. Remarkably, after a year of practice, Foer returned to the competition and won.

In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer tells how he did it and what he learned along the way. It is a fact-filled journey with lessons and characters you will not want to forget.

Consider S, a Russian journalist who could remember everything. Unlike most, “When S read through a long series of words, each word would elicit a graphic image,” and “whether he was memorizing Dante’s Divine Comedy or mathematical equations [they] were always stored in linear chains.” As Foer explains:

When he wanted to commit something to memory, S would simply take a mental stroll down Gorky Street in Moscow . . . or some other place he’d once visited, and install each of his images at a different point along the walk. One image might be placed at the doorway of a house, another near a streetlamp, another on top of a picket fence . . . another on the ledge of a store window. All this happened in his mind’s eye as effortlessly as if he were placing real objects along a street. . . . When S wanted to recall that information a day, month, year, or decade later, all he would have to do was rewalk the path where that particular set of memories was stored, and he would see each image in the precise spot where he left it. (pp. 35–36)

According to Foer, this is how the Memory Championship contestants—known as “mental athletes”—performed their seeming superhuman feats. By “converting what they were being asked to memorize into images, and distributing those images along familiar spatial journeys,” they had “taught themselves to remember like S” (p. 40). This became Foer’s goal as well.

In his quest, Foer was fortunate to have Ed Cooke, a top mental athlete, providing him with tips. For instance: “The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t remember all types of information equally well”; thus, the point of memory techniques is “to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for” (p. 91).

That does not always mean placing them along a path, or in a specific location—although this may help. It simply means, Foer points out, making one’s thoughts more memorable. “The brain,” says Foer, “best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized.” Or, put differently: “Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images.” And thus: “A striped skunk making a slam dunk is a stickier thought than a patterned mustelid engaging in athletic activity” (p. 128).

Foer used this knowledge to help him train for the Memory Championship. For instance, in order to memorize decks of playing cards, he associated each with a specific person, action, and object. “This,” Foer says, “allows any triplet of cards to be combined into a single image, and for a full deck to be condensed into just eighteen unique images” (p. 166). He did the same for numbers, a technique that enabled him to remember the exact order of hundreds of random digits by simply replaying in his mind the vivid—and therefore memorable—images that he created when first reading them.

Foer readily admits that such associations “are entirely arbitrary and have to be learned in advance, which is to say it takes a lot of remembering just to remember” (p. 165). He does not hide the fact that memorizing anything requires attention and effort—possibly more effort than it is worth employing in an age where Post-its are cheap and almost anything we want to know is readily (or at least easily) available online. But Foer makes a strong case for why it pays to memorize things, even today:

How we perceive the world [he says] and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. . . . Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. . . . Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and the source of our character. . . . [And] that’s what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human. (p. 270)

Such a summary may sound like hype—especially in a field riddled with hucksterism. However, Foer backs it up well; and, in any case, the book’s major strength does not depend on it, for Moonwalking with Einstein is first and foremost an inspiring tale of how Foer went from reporting on the U.S. Memory Championship to winning it. And his manner of doing so is the essential lesson to be learned. As Foer puts it, and as readers see:

My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. This was a tremendously empowering discovery. It made me ask myself: What else was I capable of doing, if only I used the right approach? (pp. 267–68)

Readers may finish the book with that same question in mind.

Unfortunately, however, for anyone inspired to memorize poems or books, Foer gives more encouragement than help—and the little help he does provide is not very helpful. Because of his view that memory results from creativity, Foer recommends changing words—even conjunctions—into vivid images in order to memorize them (p. 130). But in the process of converting a poem, lecture, or book into such a form, much if not all is lost. As Foer readily admits, this process “involves a kind of remembering by forgetting,” necessitates that the “meaning of a word has to be completely dismissed,” and can lead to a completely different emotional context than the work being memorized would otherwise engender (p. 132). An anecdote that Foer shares of Thomas Bradwardine, an archbishop of Canterbury in the fourteenth century, is instructive:

To remember the topic sentence of a sermon that begins “Benedictus Dominus qui per,” he’d see “the sainted Benedictine dancing to his left with a white cow with super-red teats who holds a partridge, while with his right hand he either mangles or caresses St. Dominic.” (p. 132)

Those who do not want to butcher their favorite poems or parts of their favorite books have my sympathy. As it happens, though, Foer’s descriptions of how memory works may point to a better way. Consider his comments on amnesiacs:

For some unknown reason, it’s the most recent memories that blur first in most amnesiacs, while distant memories retain their clarity. . . . [This] suggests something profound: that our memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. (p. 82)

Also, Foer discusses a study showing that without “a conceptual framework in which to embed what they were learning, [participants asked to recall something they had little experience with] were effectively amnesiacs.” He then concludes:

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. (p. 209)

Such excerpts point to the fact that memory is a result of integration and not just creativity. As Foer shows, even in the process of converting playing cards or random numbers to vivid images that one has already memorized, what one is doing is integrating the new with the old—and it is specifically that integration that enables people who otherwise could not remember more than seven random numbers to memorize hundreds or thousands.

If this is correct, a better way to remember one’s favorite poem might be simply to integrate—or mentally connect—it with similar paintings, quotes, books, and experiences; then, return to it at different times, revisiting those past links and establishing new ones. This approach may not allow readers to memorize something in record time, but it is more likely to keep the meaning of the work in question clear and enjoyable. Either way, Foer’s inspirational story is worth reading; and, for those who doubt their ability to improve their memory, his advice is well worth remembering.

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