Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 is one gem of a book. Its author, Joshua Foer, is one remarkable individual. This book was an exercise in participatory journalism. The memory of participatory journalism I have is George Plimpton‘s Paper Tiger. Back in the sixties George Plimpton convinced the Detroit Lions that they allow him to participate during the preseason. So he worked out as a quarterback and, if memory serves me correctly, took a couple of snaps during an exhibition game. He wrote a book about this time from which a motion picture was made. Although this was entertaining, it was a lark as Plimpton clearly participated in an activity to which he didn’t properly belong. Joshua Foer became intrigued about the competitive memory circuit after attending the World Memory Championships. After consulting with a variety of experts he decided to take it upon himself to train his memorization skills so that he would be able to participate in the U.S Memory Championship. This was a daunting undertaking. For example, the world memory champion, Ben Pridmore, is able to memorize the precise order of 1528 random digits in one hour. To become a Grand Master of Memory, of which there were 36 at the time the book was written, the following requirements must be met:

Memorize a list of 1,000 random digits in one hour.

Memorize the precise order of ten shuffled decks of cards in one hour.

Memorize the order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.

The memory championships involved a variety of tasks that are described in the book and each of them requires their own preparation. Joshua had what we would regard as a normal memory. He was willing to learn the mnemonic techniques that the experts employ and to bring them to the proficiency so that he would be a credible competitor at the U.S. Memory Championships.

Moonwalking with Einstein chronicles his journey from novice to participating in the championship in a most entertaining fashion. Along the way he addresses many interesting issues, issues that will be discussed in subsequent posts to the Healthymemory Blog. However, I would advise you against relying on this blog for learning the content of Moonwalking. I cannot do justice to the book. You would be missing a great read.

For the ancient Greeks mnemonic skills were an essential component of rhetorical skills. In pre-literate societies stories were memorized and historical records committed to memory by skilled memorizers. A skilled memory was essential to scholarship until the printed word became commonplace. Ever since then reliance has been increasingly placed on transactive memory, a term Foer does not use. Transactive memory refers to external storage media like paper, books, journals, storage media, the internet, and even fellow humans. Our brains remain biologically capable of doing what the ancient Greeks did. I should take pains to point out that although the title is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, the book argues that remembering everything would be a mistake and might be a personal handicap. But it is also most likely a mistake to rely almost exclusively on transactive memory. The book states that on average, people squander forty days annually compensating for things that they have forgotten. Although the book is fairly well documented, I do have to regard this particular claim with skepticism. I would be willing to accept “ a lot” rather than the precise estimate. But there might be even more compelling reasons for making greater use of biological memory. The Healthymemory Blog argues that mnemonic techniques provide a good means of exercising our cognitive skills to include focusing attention, creativity, imagination, and recoding. They activate memory circuits and exercise both hemispheres of the brain.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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