Moonwalking with Einstein
The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
On average, people squander forty 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.
Foer takes his inquiry well beyond the arena of mental athletes-across the country and deep into his own mind. In San Diego, he meets an affable old man with one of the most severe case of amnesia on record, where he learns that memory is at once more elusive and more reliable than we might think. In Salt Lake City, he swaps secrets with a savant who claims to have memorized more than nine thousand books. At a high school in the South Bronx, he finds a history teacher using twenty- five-hundred-year-old memory techniques to give his students an edge in the state Regents exam.
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.
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"His passionate and deeply engrossing book...is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind... In the end, Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us that though brain science is a wild frontier and the mechanics of memory little understood, our minds are capable of epic achievements."
-The Washington Post
"It's a terrific book: sometimes weird but mostly smart, funny and ultimately a lovely exploration of the ways that we preserve our lives and our world in the golden amber of human memory."
-Deborah Plum, New Scientist
"Joshua Foer's book...is both fun and reassuring. All it takes to have a better memory, he contends, are a few tricks and a good erotic imagination."
-Maureen Dowd, New York Times
"It's delightful to travel with him on this unlikely journey, and his entertaining treatment of memory as both sport and science is spot on...Moonwalking with Einstein proves uplifting: It shows that with motivation, focus and a few clever tricks, our minds can do rather extraordinary things."
-The Wall Street Journal
"For one year, Foer tried to attain total recall, extracting secrets from the top researchers, the real Rain Man, and the world's memory champs. He triumphed, both in his quest and in this lively account, which is, no exaggeration, unforgettable."
"[An] inspired and well-written debut book about not just memorization, but about what it means to be educated and the best way to become so, about expertise in general, and about the not-so-hidden "secrets" of acquiring skills."
-The Seattle Times
"In recounting his year in training for the U. S. Memory Championship, journalist Foer delivers a rich history of memory."
"You have to love a writer who employs chick sexing to help explain human memory. Foer is a charmer, a crackling mind, a fresh wind. He approaches a complex topic with so much humanity, humor, and originality that you don't realize how much you're taking in and understanding. It's kind of miraculous."
-Mary Roach, author of Packing For Mars, Bonk, Spook, and Stiff
"Moonwalking With Einstein isn't just a splendid overview of an essential aspect of our humanity-our memory; it is also a witty and engaging account of how Foer went from being a guy with an average memory to winning the U.S. Memory Championship."
-Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational; professor of behavioral economics at Duke University.
"In this marvelous book, Joshua Foer invents a new genre of non-fiction. This is a work of science journalism wrapped around an adventure story, a bildungsroman fused to a vivid investigation of human memory. If you want to understand how we remember, and how we can all learn to remember better, then read this book."
-Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist; contributing editor, Wired
"Moonwalking with Einstein isn't a how-to guide to remembering a name or where you put your keys. It's a riveting exploration of humankind's centuries- old obsession with memory, and one man's improbable quest to master his own."
-Stefan Fatsis, author of A Few Seconds of Panic and Word Freak
First, can you explain the title of you book, Moonwalking With Einstein?
The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.
What are the U.S. Memory Championships? How did you become involved?
The U.S. Memory Championship is a rather bizarre contest held each spring in New York City, in which people get together to see who can remember the most names of strangers, the most lines of poetry, the most random digits. I went to the event as a science journalist, to cover what I assumed would be the Super Bowl of savants. But when I talked to the competitors, they told me something really interesting. They weren’t savants. And they didn’t have photographic memories. Rather, they’d trained their memories using ancient techniques. They said anyone could do it. I was skeptical. Frankly, I didn’t believe them. I said, well, if anyone can do it, could you teach me? A guy named Ed Cooke, who has one of the best trained memories in the world, took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about memory techniques. A year later I came back to the contest, this time to try and compete, as a sort of exercise in participatory journalism. I was curious simply to see how well I’d do, but I ended up winning the contest. That really wasn’t supposed to happen.
What was the most surprising thing you found out about yourself competing in the Memory Championships?
In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.
Can you explain the “OK Plateau”?
The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That’s because it’s become automatic. You’ve moved it to the back of your mind’s filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it’s possible, of course. But you’ve got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You’ve got to push yourself past where you’re comfortable. You have to watch yourself fail and learn from your mistakes. That’s the way to get better at anything. And it’s how I improved my memory.
What do you mean by saying there an “art” to memory?
The “art of memory” refers to a set of techniques that were invented in ancient Greece. These are the same techniques that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, and that medieval scholars used to memorize entire books. The “art” is in creating imagery in your mind that is so unusual, so colorful, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before that it’s unlikely to be forgotten. That’s why mnemonists like to say that their skills are as much about creativity as memory.
How do you think technology has affected how and what we remember?
Once upon a time people invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we’ve got books, and computers and smart phones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small forgotten thing as evidence that they’re failing us altogether. We’ve forgotten how to remember.
What is the connection between memory and our sense of time?
As we get older, life seems to fly by faster and faster. That’s because we structure our experience of time around memories. We remember events in relation to other events. But as we get older, and our experiences become less unique, our memories can blend together. If yesterday’s lunch is indistinguishable from the one you ate the day before, it’ll end up being forgotten. That’s why it’s so hard to remember meals. In the same way, if you’re not doing things that are unique and different and memorable, this year can come to resemble the last, and end up being just as forgettable as yesterday’s lunch. That’s why it’s so important to pack your life with interesting experiences that make your life memorable, and provide a texture to the passage of time.
How is your memory now?
Ironically, not much better than when I started this whole journey. The techniques I learned, and used in the memory contest, are great for remembering structured information like shopping lists or phone numbers, but they don’t improve any sort of underlying, generalizable memory ability. Unfortunately, I still misplace my car keys.