Joshua Foer set out to write an article on the US Memory Championships and the “mental athletes” who compete there. He was impressed by these people and their freak ability to memorize entire decks of cards, or hundreds of digits in minutes, but they assured him it is just a matter of training; “anybody can do it”. One year later Foer was competing in the finals of the US Memory Championships.
Memory has undergone a tremendous evolution throughout human history. Before the invention of writing, memory was everything. Later memory was equated with education, and people were expected to be able to recite texts verbatim, and keep everything in their head. Today the need for memorization has been stripped away almost entirely, with the internet, and phones that hold our contact info, and remind us of people’s birthday. And yet it is a fact that memory and identity are inextricably linked. We are shaped by our memories, and everything we perceive is affected by what we have perceived before.
Moonwalking with Einstein explores memory, and is the best kind of scientific book. It is an engrossing read as it chronicles the history of memory from, the ancient Greek Simonides’ memory palace, to ancient bards, to incredible externalization of memory today, where the art of memory really only exists among a select group of mental athletes. In his research Foer talks to the smartest man in the world, the man with the best memory, the most forgetful man with tragic amnesia, a so-called prodigious savant, a multi-millionaire memory guru, and countless mental athletes. He encounters many more incredible minds in scientific studies, and all this combines to create an incredible picture of the human mind and memory.
All of his research exploring the mechanics of the mind, is also contributing to Foer’s endgame of competing in the US Memory Championships. His journey from bystander to competitor is delightful and often comical (the images he assigns to memorize a deck of cards will make you laugh out loud). Ed, english mental athlete who tries to make every moment maximally memorable in an attempt to make his life feel longer, acts as Foer’s trainer. Together they explore the ancient memory techniques, the aforementioned Simonides and his memory palace, and train hard. This technique involves having a “memory palace” preferably somewhere you know well, like your childhood home, and when trying to remember something, arranging whatever it is firmly and memorably inside your palace, so that you can walk through the palace and see images that allow you to recall a specific thing. With this technique you can memorize anything from 300 random digits, to a poem, to a shuffled deck of cards; and it really works.
This book is deeply engrossing, and passionate study of the mind. The techniques described are remarkably effective ( I was actually able to memorize an entire deck of cards in under five minutes) and can be applied to practical things like to-do lists, or phone numbers. This is a fantastic book, essential reading for anyone interested in studying the memory, or improving it, although as Foer demonstrates in the end, you’ll probably never be able to keep track of where you left your car keys.