Book review & Extracts: Moonwalking with Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

Damn, where is my wallet? 
Over the years, I have had to recognize that I have a rather poor memory, whether it comes to remembering what I did the previous week, facts and basic theorems learned in school, movies I have seen, and worse, life lessons. It got me worried sometimes, so I started looking a bit into the topic of memorization.
Whilst genetics seem to play a role  (and I’m not very reassured by that assumption, with a grand mother suffering from Alzheimer, and a super forgetful father), I am still hopeful that some tricks and techniques can be learned to improve my memory, and maybe prevent it from an early degradation…
Since childhood, I’ve been very forgetful, apparently without much of a reason because I’m also capable of good focus. Nowadays, it’s slightly better, thanks to a compensation through more planning, organization, and lists, but, I still forget about things quite regularly.
In the last months, whilst I have been training my brain with the daily workouts / brain games from the mobile app Lumosity, I was certain there are more enriching material about memory out there.

 

My brain’s profile through Lumosity results. Disclaimer: I made my parents play on the app during our last trip to Bali which deteriorated my scores, but the yeah, the Memory line was still far behind before they touched it anyway…

So when I came across an article praising “Moonwalking with Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering everything“, I couldn’t resist to order it from Amazon.

 

Behind this intriguing title lies one of the core learning about the book: there is a true art of remembering things, based on techniques dating back millennium ago, when writing had not been invented and popularized, at a time where oral transmission was key to convey knowledge, history, beliefs and values across generations.
in the fifteenth century, Gutenberg came along and turned books into mass-produced commodities, and eventually it was no longer all that important to remember what the printed page could remember for you. Memory techniques that had once been a staple of classical and medieval culture got wrapped up with the occult and esoteric Hermetic traditions of the Renaissance, and by the nineteenth century they had been relegated to carnival sideshows and tacky self-help books – only to be resurrected in the last decades of the twentieth century for this bizarre and singular competition [memory championship]” (page 10)
The book also pleads for a return of memorization as a key element of learning, and also because to have good memories, you must enrich your lives with more experiences that lead to a more fulfilling  sense of time passing by:
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 experiences ass possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthen the perception of our lives.” (page 77)

George W Bush dressed as a maid making sushi on the Eiffel tower.

Moonwalking with Einstein, like the above sentence, refers to the sort of striking association you could form in your head in order to create a compelling association that will stick. You will learn in this book that memory, as per one of the core technique called “Loci”, theorized in the Rhetorica Ad Herrenium, is as much about imagining than actually memorizing, and a lot about technique.
In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus” says Buzan. “The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and create something new and to hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.” (page 203)
You will learn that the expression “in the first place,…” originates directly from this technique, since the memory artist will use familiar memory palaces in which these shockingly easy-to-remember images will be positioned. To remember, the memory artist only needs to take a casual walk in these imaginary palaces from the first place to the next, in order to see every image appear clearly where they have been placed, and remember a sequence.
Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches. (…) There is a feedback loop between the two [memory and intelligence, nb] The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in tunr mean
they will know more, and be able to learn more
.” (page 209)
The book follows the journey of the author from a discovery of the existence of memory championships, to his taking part in them following a kinky and harsh training suggested by colorful memory champions. In the end, it is a book that is about as much about accelerated, intense learning and attaining peak performance than it is about memory itself.
As a task become automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts in the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau”, the point at which you decide to you’re OK with how good you are something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving. (…) what separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice”. (…) They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. (…) Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. (…) To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.” (page 171)
Joshua Foer certainly deserve a good praise for this book, that is both extremely informative and fun to read.
If you want to contribute to brain research, there is a crowd-sourced effort that taps on collective input to aggregate data and help tackle (amongst others) the Alzheimer disease: I invite you to take this test
Well, I don’t know if it’s the Moonwalking with Einstein effect, but I did not score that bad on this one…
Also, if you want a serious brain training, I warmly recommend this Brain Workshop, which, however boringly minimal its look, is a “game” that will really challenge you.

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