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Volume 89 Issue 41 | pp. 48-49 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: October 10, 2011

Better Memory Is A Moonwalk Away

Enter the world of memory champions and learn some of their secrets
Department: Books
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Person/Action/Object
Images help memory.Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,?by Joshua Foer, Penguin Press, 2011, 320 pages, $26.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59-420229-2)
Credit: Newscom/Shutterstock/C&EN
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Person/Action/Object
Images help memory.Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,?by Joshua Foer, Penguin Press, 2011, 320 pages, $26.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59-420229-2)
Credit: Newscom/Shutterstock/C&EN

With just a few seconds to glance at this series—1101010111010001101010010—most people probably could not recall the ones and zeroes in perfect order. But Ben Pridmore probably could. In fact, according to “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” by Joshua Foer, Pridmore holds the world record for memorizing random ones and zeroes: 3,705 of them in 30 minutes.

Pridmore is a “mnemonist”—or mental athlete, someone who trains to memorize names and faces, decks of cards, random numbers, and even the works of Shakespeare at speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than ordinary folks can. He is one of several characters in the world of memory competitions the reader meets in “Moonwalking with Einstein,” the fascinating, often hilarious account of how that world lured Foer and how he emerged from it as winner of the 2006 USA Memory Championship. The annual tournament, which debuted in 1997, is a one-day competition of mental athletes vying to memorize names and faces, a deck of cards, an unpublished poem, random numbers, and random words with the greatest accuracy in the shortest time. The 14th tournament was held on March 12 at the Con Edison headquarters in New York City.

The book tells how Foer prepared for the competition and delights the reader with the techniques to hone the brain for astounding feats of recall, which memory athletes claim anyone can achieve with proper training. These techniques, basically the art of memory, could benefit students of chemistry and other fields that require mastery of a huge body of knowledge.

Along the way, Foer also delves into the science of memory, aiming to understand, as he writes, “its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential.” His research takes him not only to K. Anders Ericsson, an eminent scholar of cognitive processes at Florida State University, but also to research published in Nature, Nature Neuroscience, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer, Penguin Press, 2011 (978-1-59-420229-2)
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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer, Penguin Press, 2011 (978-1-59-420229-2)

“Moonwalking with Einstein” is not a self-help book for those who can’t remember where they left their car keys, the name of someone they just met, or what they wore a week ago. But it has enough information to help. A technique most readers probably can use is the memory palace—a space one can visualize in graphic detail that has places to hold items to recall.

The memory palace could be a house or route to work. The idea is to visually locate items in different parts of the space in as memorable a state as possible, usually with the help of creative imagination. For example, Foer’s first foray in a memory palace involved grocery items, including cottage cheese, which he mentally installed in the front door of his childhood home. But rather than Foer picturing just a tub of cottage cheese, his coach, Ed Cooke, instructed him to “see an enormous wading-pool-size tub of cottage cheese.” And then, Cooke continued, “I want you to imagine Claudia Schiffer swimming in this tub of cottage cheese. I want you to imagine her swimming in the buff, and dripping with dairy.”

As Foer writes, “When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”

Creative imaginings can have absurdly funny outcomes when applied to a technique called PAO, or person/action/object. Here, an item—such as a card in a deck of 52 playing cards—is associated with a PAO combo. And when one needs to remember a trio of items, one conjures a single image consisting of the person of the first item, performing the action of the second item, on the object of the third. For example, in Foer’s PAO system for playing cards:

King of diamonds = Bill Clinton (P) smoking (A) a cigar (O),

King of hearts = Michael Jackson (P) moonwalking with (A) a white glove (O), and

King of clubs = John Goodman (P) eating (A) a hamburger (O).

So if Foer were to see a trio of kings in the order diamonds/hearts/clubs, he would remember it as “Bill Clinton moonwalking with a hamburger.”

Like spelling bee champions, memory champions are curiosities, admired for their unique abilities, but so what?

Before humans learned to paint in caves, Foer explains, memories resided only in the brain, and remembering was a survival tool. And even when societies had advanced in visual arts, music, language, and writing, a trained memory was held as a mark of good upbringing. “Memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics,” Foer writes. “Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas truly be incorporated into one’s psyche and their values absorbed.”

And then came printing, which made possible the mass production of books and other expressions of memory. No longer did humans have to depend on themselves to remember everything, and the art of memory faded. More and more, what people need to remember is not specific information but where to find it. And as the systems of external memory aids—smartphones, GPS devices, electronic alerts, databases, the Internet—become ever more sophisticated, people will need to remember less and less. What would happen to our humanity when we don’t need to remember? I wonder.

Interspersed in the narrative of Foer’s journey to the 2006 USA Memory Championship are forays into the science of memory, including case studies of people with rare conditions, such as the Russian journalist who could not forget, or the Harvard University student who may be the only person who could have qualified as having a photographic memory, a phenomenon that mental athletes say is a myth.

Foer’s forays into the science also bring insights about expertise. Take the arcane art of sexing chicks, worth big bucks to commercial poultry farms, which can profit only from female chicks. Masters of the skill take years to achieve 1,200 male/female assignments per hour with 98% accuracy, Foer says. Like other kinds of experts, he explains, chicken-sexing experts perceive the world differently. Their unique perception derives from their exquisite memory of details of their area of expertise.

In the course of his yearlong training, Foer also learned that experts maintain their edge through deliberately staying in the cognitive stage of acquiring a skill, which involves full concentration to learn the task and figuring out ways to do it better. When learning something new, most people move from that first stage to a second stage where they are concentrating less and making fewer errors. Then they move to what Foer calls the “OK plateau,” where they do the task automatically, without conscious effort. At this stage, performing the task no longer increases one’s expertise. To keep out of the OK plateau, he explains, experts keep raising the bar by focusing on technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In this thoroughly enjoyable book, these insights on skill and expertise are gems. Anyone can achieve extraordinary results with single-minded zeal to train; it’s not about talent—though talent helps—but about persistence, focus, and determination.

I began reading this book on the beach during the Memorial Day weekend and breezed through the first half in a couple of hours. Foer, who has written for National Geographic, Esquire, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Slate, writes engagingly and with a great sense of humor. I welcomed his use of a graph, unusual in a book aimed at a mass audience. I appreciated that the book has an index, not the best but better than nothing. And I was pleased to see a section of notes referencing the literature supporting or explaining statements in specific chapters.

I do have a tiny complaint: Foer refers to the U.S. Memory Championship, whereas the organizers of the competition call it the USA Memory Championship. This speck of a flaw should not diminish the immense reading pleasure this smart book brings.

 
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