on March 9, 2011
This is one of those rare books that is not only a joy to read, but also immensely helpful. It can help all of us with something that is at once troublesome and worrisome: our memory. It does this with ease, not teaching us some grueling rote memory technique, but one that is easy, natural and intuitive. Yet Moonwalking with Einstein turns out to not be exclusively a how-to book on memory. So what is it?
Well, yes, it is about memory and how to improve it, but it is at once a history of techniques, a description of what memory is and what can go wrong with it, and also a running narrative of how the author, a journalist himself with no special memory skills, becomes one of the most proficient memory athletes in America.
I'd learned a mnemonic device to aid memorization decades ago while in college, and found it to be helpful, but for some reason I'd abandoned the technique once I graduated. But Moonwalking with Einstein expands the mnemonic technique I learned back then by use of something of which I'd never heard: the "Memory Palace." The Memory Palace exploits our inherent skill for remembering images and spatial locations, harnesses these two abilities we all posses in abundance, and relates them to the memorization of numbers, lists and assortments of other difficult to remember items. The amazing thing is that the Memory Palace not only makes memorization easy, it also makes it fun.
What makes the book so interesting is that it is narrative non-fiction and reads like a novel. The author locks his conflict with his own memory early on, gives a sense of rising tension as he accumulates the forces to overcome its limitations, and resolves this internal conflict at the end when he participates in the US Memory Championship. I didn't read it as urgently as I did today's number one bestseller, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, but still, I couldn't put it down.
In Chapter Five, I scanned the "to-do" list of fifteen items on pages 92/3 that the author had to memorize in his initial attempt, and developed the technique for myself as I read about the author memorizing it. As my Memory Palace, I used an old home of a high school friend with which I was still familiar, constructing useful details as I went. When I had finished reading about the author memorizing the list (took me about five minutes), I had memorized it myself, and I found that the items were not only immediately memorable, but that the list of items and their sequence was still with me days later, and so imbedded in my memory that I'm sure I'll ever forget it. All this, I accomplished effortlessly. This is a truly remarkable feat for me because I'm almost seventy years old and have chronic fatigue syndrome, which adversely affects all aspects of my memory.
It has also given me hope that I might finally learn ancient Greek. I tried to learn it several years ago, but found building a vocabulary so difficult that I abandoned the project. Rote memory was just too much trouble. I am interested in all things Greek, and as it turns out, the Memory Palace technique was invented in the fifth century BC by Simonides following his narrow escape from the collapse of a building. This in itself is a story you'll be interested in reading about. The author says that since the time of this ancient Greek, "the art of memory has been about creating architectural spaces in the imagination." Having been to Greece twice, I have all the makings of a superb Greek Memory Palace. While traveling around Greece and the western coast of Turkey for ten weeks, I visited many cities and islands: Athens, Thebes, Delphi, Ithaca, Mykonos, Delos, Santorini, etc. I can't count all the archaeological sites I visited. What I'm creating isn't just any old Memory Palace but actually a Memory Country. Within each location, I can identify as many locations for storing words and meanings as I need. But not only that, I can also use characters from Greek mythology to create actions and images to reinforce the material, as the author suggests. All this constitutes my Greek Memory Palace: the location where I will store ancient Greek words and meanings as I learn the language, in accordance with the instructions learned in Moonwalking with Einstein. None of it was difficult. I picked it up as I read the book.
The author describes how in the past people viewed their minds as something to perfect by loading it with all sorts of intellectual material. "People used to labor to furnish their minds. They invested in the acquisition of memories the same way we invest in the acquisition of things." [page 134] Some even believed that "the art of memory was a secret key to unlocking the occult structure of the universe." [page 151] This has given me an entirely new view of how to perceive my own mind and nourish it in the future.
The author also discusses how we came to lose touch with our ability to remember with the invention of the printed word. The history of that estrangement and how inventions like Wikipedia and the Internet foster that estrangement is a very interesting story. The author makes the reader aware of what is happening to us and provides a way to project ourselves into the future without suffering so much of technology's debilitating effects.
Perhaps the reason this book is so successful is that the reader never loses sight of the practical use of the information the author is providing because the author is discovering it himself and actively making use of it in his quest to make it into the US Memory Championship.
This is an important book. Everyone can benefit from reading it.
Whether you have memory problems (can't recall the name of someone you met a week ago?) or not, you're likely to improve your memory after reading this book. Even if you don't - but odds are you will - it makes for fascinating reading.
It definitely was a major aid for me and I do think of it as a unique "self help" book, one that can have immediate results, helping to make life easier, alleviate tricky memory issues and more. I think it is important to disclose that I'm a Baby Boomer and my memory seems to have worsened with age. I used to recall the name of nearly everyone I met as well as both major and minor actors and actresses, all of my teachers (from kindergarten through high school) as well as the first and last names of every one of my high school classmates. I could recall even tiny details of books read long ago.
But Moonwalking with Einstein goes far beyond remembering the names of acqaintances. It can help make your daily life easier, aiding you when you try to find lost items - or keep them from getting lost in the first place- and actually train you to find ways to improve your memory.
For added fun, the author includes examples of people who have amazing abilities to recall things. I wondered if at least one of them could give Vegas a run for its money or even be banned from casinos. Although I don't plan to test my abilities in Vegas, I have been practicing in casual card games, with gratifying results. The surprised looks from friends and family members was worth the cost of the book.
I'd strongly recommend you give this one a try. The techniques can even be fun for a whole family to share - and test -together. And c'mon...how can you pass up a book which explores "the art and science of remembering everything"?
on March 17, 2011
After reading the first chapter of this book online, I went out and picked up a copy and read it. I was under the impression from reading that first chapter that this book would be about Joshua's year of training his memory. There is a large gap between knowing about a memory technique and how to actually use that technique. I was interested in reading about the author's efforts, problems, and his solutions to those problems. Unfortunately for me, only a small part of this book actually was about the author's actual training. He does cover a good deal of academic ground on memory. If you have a undergarduate degree in psychology, most of this material will be familiar. The author is correct when he said that this book isn't a self-help book, but there are a few pearls within its cover. My expectations for this book resulted in my being disappointed with it. That's my problem. I do consider the book to be a good read and would recommend it to friends and associates.
on March 8, 2011
"Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" by Joshua Foer is a memoir of the author's attempted to win the U.S. memory championship. Along the way Mr. Foer attempts to explain some tricks, techniques and the science around memory.
The book follows the gripping journey taken by Joshua Foer as he participates in the U.S. Memory Championship. As a science journalist Foer becomes interested in the champions' secrets as well as the secrets of the brain which we still do not fully understand.
Foer learns how to naturally memorize information with the help of experts and to master techniques which make memorization easier.
"Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" by Joshua Foer is a fabulous memoir which is not only personal and informative, but also highly entertaining.
As a journalist, Mr. Foer became interested in those "mental athletes" who can memorize random data (order of packs of cards, long lists, etc.) when he covered the U.S. Memory Championship as an assignment. As he researched more into this area he became intrigued and wondered if he could do it also.
At the start of his research, Mr. Foer went to meet psychologist Anders Ericsson who studies those with exceptional memory. "SF" can remember 80 digits after a single hearing, for example. During Foer's attempt, Ericsson would study him - a man without an exceptional memory. However, in a very poignant part of the book he also meets with a man who completely lost his short term memory.
Over the next year Foer studied hard to improve his memory, or rather improve memorizing random stuff (there is a difference as we find out). The path we find ourselves going along with Mr. Foer on his journey is delightful, inventing and funny, the people he meets are interesting and quirky.
Is the human mind really susceptible to the clever tricks Mr. Foer describes in his book?
I attempted to find out.
One of the memorization techniques involves a "memory palace" and is supposedly a very old method. The technique involves imagining yourself walking around a familiar building and placing objects on a list in that building (your home, first grad class, grandma's home, etc.).
Supposedly if you walk your way through that "memory palace" again you should be able to retrieve those items without an issue.
On pages 92-93 Mr. Foer describes his first memorization list given to him in Central Park by English memory champion Ed Cooke (Pickled garlic, Cottage cheese, salmon, six bottles of white wine, socks, three hula hoops, snorkel, dry ice machine, email Sophia, etc.)
As I walked though my home, in my mind, I placed all fifteen items around my house (using quirky stories such as having three Hawaiian dancers perform with hula hoops on my son's train table) and, believe it or not, it worked.
It amazed me so much I came home and asked my wife to do the same thing.
She did and she was amazed as well. Over the next several days we challenged one another, in random places, to name the list.
As it turned out, learning memorization was a part of every school curriculum in the early years of the country - however, from some reason, it has been abandoned.
That's too bad.
on March 7, 2011
Do you have troubles remembering special days like anniversaries or birthdays? Maybe we all forget these sometimes... How about memorizing two decks of cards in five minutes or less? That is what Joshua Foer did to win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship.So he knows what he is talking about in this book. He will tell you how to improve your memory.
Foer says: "You could argue that we are nothing more and nothing less than what we remember. Memory is not just this storage vault that we dip into when we need to recall something. It's actually intimately involved in shaping how we move through the world and process the world." I agree. Memory is important. You need it every day.
Memorization is not boring if you know the tricks how to memorize things.
Memory techniques used by the people who are considered to have a good/excellent memory are all about figuring out ways to make otherwise uninteresting information interesting and colorful and meaningful and attention-grabbing and fun!
The author talks about memory places, attaching a mental image to the place you need to remember.
It's actually how Cicero remembered his speeches, and how medieval scholars memorized entire texts.
If someone expects something new, something different than what has been available, then this book is not it. It is just a collection of memory tricks in one book. If you have never tried any of these tricks, then you should try!
on March 7, 2011
Witty, hilarious, fascinating, informative, and smoothly written--this book strikes the perfect balance between the narative and the research. It's that sweet-spot of non-fiction that you almost can't believe is real. Foer takes you on a fast and fun trip from his participation in the strange, ultra-geeky mnemonist subculture, to his research both historical and present day about memory.
I literally sped through this book, not wanting it to end. Foer's voice is smooth and polished as well as witty and a somewhat snarky. I look forward to his future books and his writings on Slate and elsewhere!
on May 15, 2011
A few years ago a tyre manufacturer started an advertising campaign based on the fact that its tyres were being used on F1 circuits by the best pilots in the world. A competing brand saw this as a faux pas and and replied with ads saying something to the effect of "If you need tyres that last for less than two hours while driving at 300km/h in a loop, then our competitor's are just fine". Tools crafted for peak performance are in no way adequate for a standard performance.
In the case of "memory athletes", as the book calls them and as they call themselves, their sport does not even resemble a `peak' performance (racing) of something that we otherwise do naturally (driving). What they appear to be doing is `hacking' the process of something we are bad at (remembering repetitive information without context) by doing something we are good at instead (developing stable memories of colourful, moving, peculiar things) and then converting the results of the latter into what amounts to an incredible performance in the former.
A casual marathon runner who wants to become a professional might change the type of training he goes through, his running technique, the shoes he uses and his diet, but in the end his performance is just the same as before - running - only better. His performance is enhanced by focusing and streamlining all the factors that contribute to speed and endurance, but he is still just running. A mental athlete in no way can be said to perform the same tasks that we normally call memorising, and his skill - as evidenced in the book - do not translate into improved performance in any other type of mental task. In the same way in which repeatedly taking IQ tests improves one's performance on IQ tests only, memory athletes seem to be proficient only in their specialised fields of memorisation, becoming again humans like us when they are given information to remember in unforeseen formats.
To be fair, the author seem to be aware at almost all times of the gimmicky nature of the discipline, doubting whether memory athletes are really `memorising' things or whether they are just geeks with a very peculiar hobby. And at the end of the book, when a fellow memory athlete asks him if he intends to continue competing, he more or less replies that he's got better stuff to do.
For all the interesting research and discussion about memory in this book, the author does not address what is the real, fundamental problem with mnemonic techniques, which is that they overestimate the importance of remembering raw information and forget the importance of finding it at the right time. Unless you are a minstrel or you live in a 9th Century monastery, remembering strings of information is not really that important. What counts is remembering what you need to remember at the right time, and knowing how it is positioned relative to other, related information.
Every time one learns a new piece of information he also creates a set of conditions for that information to be retrieved (how long will it be remembered for consciously? And unconsciously? What clues will cause that piece of information to be retrieved? What other information will come to mind once that first memory has been accessed? What state of mind creates the best chances for recollection?), and every time the information is recalled these conditions change. Nobody (besides card-counters at the blackjack table) needs to remember that Einstein moonwalking is the eight of diamonds, but quite a few people have a constant need - for instance - to make the right connection at the right time during a discussion. In other words, what ultimately matters is building the right index for information to be woven onto.
About three months ago I started the daunting task of learning the apparently endless series of Chinese characters, and within the first few days I had already come across online several techniques which promised to speed up the process by orders of magnitude by using various mnemonics to perform the task. I took a half afternoon and without too much effort studied 100 characters using techniques similar to those described in this book. The next day I realised that I could still remember clearly those characters, but they seemed to be nested inside a useless labyrinth of curious and confusing images. More problematically, characters learnt by `rote' were hard to learn but could be easily recognised instinctively and pronounced timely when appearing in a sentences, while the meaning and pronounciation of characters learnt through mnemonics had to be `determined' consciously. When they were recognised the recognition process required a deviation to the `labyrinth' in which I had placed them the day before. They had become trapped in a web of useless imagery, which more or less only allowed me only to recite them in order and out of context. In the end, I had to forget them and re-learn them all. Rote learning is hard, but puts the information in the right closet, mnemonic techniques allows to memorise a lot, but store memories in a jungle of oneiric images without context.
Perhaps the only true memory champion of the book is "S" the journalist, whose inarrestable synesthetic river of memories tightly woven onto sensorial perceptions made him a `natural' surrounded by `fakes'. His experience is perhaps the only one in this book to have shed some light on how memory works, while it fails us so often and why sometimes it seems to work as it should.
After dropping mnemonic techniques, in order to continue learning Chinese I dedicated myself to flashcards and I started creating taxonomic indexes of characters based on their components. At a certain point in the process of memorisation I realised that every new character that I consciously learnt by means of `rote' (aided by decomposition into elements, and the study of its etymology) became encoded in my mind as a specific, vague and almost imperceptible synesthetic image which served as an address bar to instantly track back the meaning and pronounciation of the character. In this new synesthetic code, created - so to say - without intention but with a lot of effort, informaton of pronounciation, meaning and tone are embedded as properties of this image.
Operating under the assumption that I have no savant skills and that I'm gifted with a normal dose of memory and intelligence, I can only imagine that this is how we always encode our memories, especially when we work hard at it. "S" was simply able to do naturally and all the time what you and I can only do with a lot of effort and by marshalling all our attention and concentration.
on March 30, 2011
I'll never forget this book.
Joshua Foer offers a highly engaging, thoroughly entertaining, and surprisingly educational journey through the history of the "art of memory" as he makes his was to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. Foer guides his readers from the ancient ruins of a legendary (and tragic) banquet in the 6th century BC ("where the art of memory was born") to the drunken debaucheries of modern "mental athletes" at Simpson's-in-the-Strand.
Moonwalking with Einstein is difficult to put down because it gives us a glimpse into the truly extraordinary. The reader is introduced to a fascinating cast of characters including Simonides of Ceos (the so-called founder of the art of memory), Ben Pridmore ("who could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour and ... any poem handed to him"), the young journalist S (who was doomed to forget nothing), Gordon Bell (the Microsoft executive who records every image and sound he encounters through "lifelogging"), Kim Peek (the real Rain Man), and other various "mnemonists" like Foer's Oxford chum Ed (who dreamed of building a "memory gymnasium") and fellow "Grand Master of Memory" Lukas (author of the pamphlet "How to Be Three Times Cleverer Than Your IQ").
Moonwalking is not a "How To" book yet the reader cannot not help but walk away with a better grasp of the his own mind and with new tools to better use it. My wife and I now regularly quiz each other on random lists and facts that we've stored away in our "memory palaces" and I'm already integrating new methods and techniques into my study habits and professional development.
This book is not academic, yet wonderfully insightful. It is fun without being flippant. The reader is as engaged in the story of Raemon Matthews' "Talented Tenth" (a group of young students from the Bronx who employ the "art of memory" in personal and educational advancement) as he is with Dr. Yip Swee Chooi who memorized the entire 56,000-word, 1,774-page Oxford Chinese-English Dictionary.
Foer reminds us that the "art of memory" is more than party tricks and eccentric mental competitions: Moonwalking with Einstein is "about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged.... Memory training is ... nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."
This is more than participatory journalism, this is a gripping journey into one of the most irresistible mysteries of humanity: the Mind.
on March 9, 2011
Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" is a good book, but it will leave some readers thinking about how much better it could have been. In "Moonwalking," Foer tries to have it both ways: to write a serious book about an important subject, memory, while at the same time writing an accessible bestseller (which it no doubt will be). He does this by hooking his excellent writing about the science, history, and cultural significance of memory into the tale of his competition in the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship competition, complete with idiosyncratic competitors, many of whom apparently have neither the time, inclination, or in some cases the basic hygiene required to earn a living other than by hawking "memory secrets" with all the dignity of late night TV pitchmen.
Don't get me wrong. Overall, "Moonwalking" is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Foer has a breezy writing style, and is at times delightfully funny. But it is that same entertaining, shaggy-dog style that ends up contrasting so glaringly with his sometimes profound and always though-provoking sections that tell the serious story of memory and its devaluation in the 20th Century.
Foer's writing on the importance of memory in societies before the development of writing is excellent. The ability of such cultures to pass down knowledge and their own history from generation to generation depended on the development of techniques that allowed individuals to memorize astounding amounts of information. Foer recounts the discovery of the 2,500 year old mnemonic technique known as the "memory palace," by which Simonides of Ceos supposedly recalled the exact location of the victims of the collapse of a banquet hall in which he was speaking in order to guide grief-stricken relatives to the bodies of their loved ones.
In fact the passage of knowledge through writing was disparaged by such men as Socrates, who believed that witten words "could never be anything more than a cue for memory - a way of calling to mind information already in one's head," and that "writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path toward intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels." In the 21st Century, when two-thirds of American teens don't have a clue as to when the Civil War began, and one-fifth don't know who the United States fought against in World War II, Socrates' predictions seem prescient rather than merely a quaint longing for the good old days.
Foer reveals some remarkable facts about the evolution of our attitudes toward the written word. The use of punctuation and word spacing was tried out in the 2nd Century A.D., but was ultimately abandoned for 900 years. Until Guttenberg and the invention of moveable type, books were largely regarded as aids to memory rather as primary sources of information in themselves.
Foer also does an excellent job of describing the ways in which the increasing availability of written sources has created a world in which, if one reads at all, one reads extensively rather than intensively. Breadth of knowledge replaces depth of knowledge. Lack of a foundational memory pool inside our brains results in a reduced capacity for critical thinking. Comparing what we learn with what we know, integrating new material with previously acquired and remembered material to gain new insight and understanding about the world, is sacrificed at the alter of Google and instant but unconnected, and largely uunretained, knowledge.
Likewise, Foer's exploration of the neuroscience of memory, including the stories the astonishing abilities of so-called savants, is both insightful and even touching.
It is when he tries to interweave his own experiences as he first reports on and later enters the U.S. Memory Championship competition that Foer stumbles. Foer seems to be working overtime to engage the reader in the story. To his credit, he at least partially succeeds in making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Some episodes are even laugh out loud funny. But the raw material weighs him down. Unlike recent accounts of other potentially snooze-worthy contests such as crossword puzzle competitions and spelling-bees, his compatriots in the rarified world of super-memory often come across as unlikable or just plain dull. There is no one root for except the obvious candidate, the author himself.
It is too bad that the author, who tells so many important stories that have great relevance in this age of hyper-information, chose not stick to those stories. But we are lucky that Joshua Foer has given us as much as he has in "Moonwalking With Einstein." Without the hook of his shoot-out at the memory corral, this timely and informative book might have gone largely unread by anyone.
on April 3, 2011
Like many self-improvement books, Moonwalking with Einstein is long on narrative and short on practical 'how to improve your memory.' The narrative is well written and easy to read. Most of the 'how to memorize things' is in the context of memory contests, and not very applicable to everyday business. (Mr. Foer does mention this towards the end of the book.)
Overall, this book is a good read, but do keep your expectations reasonable for your personal memory improvement.