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