Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, 2011
Published by Penguin Books
First line: “Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds).”
Book Rx: For when you want a brainy challenge and Sudoku no longer seems to do the trick.
While that (see above) is the first line in Chapter One, the book really begins with a short story about Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. “There were no other survivors” and bodies were mangled beyond recognition in the rubble of a collapsed banquet hall. But Simonides manages to help hysterical relatives locate their loved ones by recalling exactly where each guest was. He
…simply sealed his senses to the chaos around him and reversed time in his mind.
Thus, says Foer, the art of memory was born.
In Moonwalking With Einstein, we follow Foer as he trains his memory — first for fun, then later on, to win the USA Memory Championships.
“USA Memory what?” you say. I hadn’t heard about it before I read the book either, but it’s a fascinating event, much like any other sport. Categories include Names and Faces (memorizing headshots and names — of practical use at any party), Speed Numbers, Speed Cards (the trick to memorizing a deck of cards is detailed visuals!), Poetry, Random Words, Double Deck’r Bust (even more cards), and Three Strikes and You’re Out which will you require you to remember as much as you can from full-on statements like these:
Hi, I’m Diana Marie Anderson. I was born on December 22, 1967, in Ithaca, New York, 14850. My work number, but please don’t call me there, is 929-244-6735, extension 14. I have a pet and her name is Karma and she’s a yellow lab. I have some hobbies: watching movies, cycling, and knitting. My favorite car is a 1927 Model T Ford. It’s black. When I eat, I have pizza and jelly beans and peppermint-stick ice cream.
Along the way Foer interviews people on extreme ends of the brain spectrum — those who remembered too much, or too little. I was particularly struck by the self-experiment of Michel Siffre, a French chronobiologist. In 1962 Siffre spent two months living in a dark cave with no sense of time, sleeping and eating when he felt like it. What happened? His memory deteriorated.
As time began to blur, he became effectively amnesic. […] When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal. He thought only a month had gone by. His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two.
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
I can’t think of a more persuasive argument for carpe diem than that.
There were plenty of enjoyable anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book: I especially enjoyed the one on the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School and the art of chick sexing (yes, it’s a real profession), our modern memory crutches, and the one on memory palaces.
I tried memorizing one of Foer’s lists using the memory palace. I was able to retain the list and recite it from memory a full month after reading the book, which I found amazing. Next goal: get rid of written grocery lists!
Foer viewed the brain as a muscle which must be exercised. I agree; it doesn’t even have to be memorizing decks of cards or even doing Sudoku, studies have shown that trying to learn another language helps keep the brain young.
… Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.
It’s remarkable how much memory shapes and defines us. Don’t forget to keep your mind fit.