Moonwalking with Einstein is a delightful read offering a solid overview of memory techniques. I normally finish a book before recommending it, but the day I started reading I’d told at least six people to check it out. A few days later when I finished I considered it one of the best pieces of participatory journalism I’ve read. By the end, I was neither tired of the book nor sad it was over.
Author Joshua Foer managed to pique my interest for the three days I spent reading and ended exactly when it came time. Foer takes you on a journey from his covering the US memory championships as a reporter in 2005, to becoming the US memory champion, competing for a world title in 2006. He gives an overview of several techniques to improve memory and dives into some fascinating medical literature. Among my favorite parts of the book was an interview with EP, an amnesiac with short term memory comparable to that of a goldfish and no long term memories since the 1950s.
If unfamiliar with techniques like the memory palace and mnemonic devices the book may give you a good place to start learning more. If you’re someone who has some, or even expert familiarity with memory techniques this book is still so well written and interesting as to be an enjoyable read.
I had some exposure to the methods described in this book, from an elementary school phonics program called PACE (Processing And Cognitive Enhancement). For many of the same reasons that at 8 or 9-years-old I didn’t keep memorizing everything by storing it in palaces, I’m probably not going to start now. As a kid, I memorized all the US Presidents by visualizing a woman, with feet made of atoms watching a smiling sun wearing a chefs hat, who was BBQing a smaller angry sun. Watching son = Washington, atoms = Adams, chef sun = Jefferson, angry sun = Madison, and so on.
Side note: While it’s not quite the same memory device I learned with, this video shows the US Presidents using mental images.
Those mental images were helpful in a way, but they also gave me extra contextless information that as an adult has no use. I still remember most of the presidents in order, but any application that would require my knowing the order of presidents would likely also require that I know some historical context, and would merit a quick glance online to fact check. As an adult, you’re not often asked who was the President between Grover Cleveland’s two terms (Benjamin Harrison).
Memorization of facts without context doesn’t really matter. Knowing the order of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower don’t help you understand history. Knowing order doesn’t tell you the economic policies of Hoover and Roosevelt, and how they played into the great depression. The order doesn’t tell you about internment camps, or when Eisenhower hired historian’s to dispute the book Other Losses.
Did writing burn down the memory palace?
Much of what is covered in the book to improve memory seem like gimmicks. Even if they are actually ancient tools. The Method of loci aka the memory palace is described in the ad Herennium, a Latin text from late 80s BC. Even with that history, memory tricks feel like sideshow tricks today.
Socrates in his day disliked writing believing it would make humanity forgetful. I bet Socrates would be shocked by a modern library, and couldn’t fathom our world with cell phones and search engines. I remembered Harrison (a sun with chest hair) was the 23rd President with Cleveland’s (a big cleaver cutting a landmass) terms both before and after, but I did look that up to be sure. That was also me, as an adult, creating a reason to remember the order of US presidents.
The 4-minute mile for memory contests
Even with some knowledge of the core memory techniques, I had no knowledge of The World Memory Championships.
The World Memory Championships were and are fascinating, but it is hard to wrap my mind around what the 13 years since Moonwalking with Einstein was written have done to the world records. In 2006 the fastest time to memorize a shuffled deck of cards was 32 seconds, held by Ben Pridmore. That record is now 13.96 seconds set by Zou Lujian in 2017.
Somehow I don’t think that the speed card world record of just under 14 seconds will ever be thought of as Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile for memory contests. While it’s pretty safe to say the limit of 13.96 seconds to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards is in your head, unlike the 4-minute mile it’s probably not going to become any sort of a standard among professional competitors.
Learning How To Learn
I am skeptical of how much value memorization methods will add to my life but it’s still a topic of interest. I think we all want a way to learn things faster and better (I’m also one to pursue stupid human tricks). While I was reading Moonwalking with Einstein I also took a free class on Coursera called Learning how to Learn, I highly recommend it.
The class, taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, gives a lot of insight into the human brain and ways to improve your own performance. If you’re going to take the class don’t skip the optional interviews. The interviews with Benny Lewis, Nelson Dellis, Scott Young & Daphne Gray-Grant stick out in mind, but every interview is worth the extra time.
Learning how to Learn is based largely on Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, a book that I plan on reading soon. If you’re also interested in improving memory and other mental performance, here are some other books I intend to check out. These come recommended by Ron White, the 2009 & 2010 US Memory Champion. His YouTube Channel is worth checking out, but in one video he recommends:
- Mega Memory by Kevin Trudeau
- The Memory Book by Harry Lorrayne
- Quantum Memory by Dominic Obrien
- Maximize Your Memory by Ramon Campayo
- Math Magic by Scott Flansburg
While I’ve yet to read any of these books, since Math Magic has been on my reading list for some time, and Ron White says It’s “a great book if you want to know how to multiply 782 times 25 in your head…” I’m looking forward to it.