Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is the true story of the author, a free lance journalist who covers a memory competition, who decides he could compete at that level even with his bad memory. Within a year he returns and wins the United States’ Memory Championship.
My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.
Foer describes the tricks of the trade and outlines effective practice regiments. Foer also explains memory and the pitfalls that plague us all.
Much of the chaos that our brains filter out is words, because more often than not, the actual language that conveys an idea is just window dressing. What matters is the rest, the meaning of those words. And that’s what our brains are so good at remembering. In real life, it’s rare that anyone is asked to recall ad verbum outside of congressional depositions and the poetry event at an international memory competition.
Foer looks at exceptions both natural and taught. Foer also looks at the history of memory and memorization, and the how it fell out of favor in U.S. public schools. The book is well written and a fun read. Foer learned the key to memorizing is the use of visual tricks to symbolically encode the information in a form the human brain is good at remembering. The brain (the hardware is fixed); so the key is to use different software. A concept that was brought home after Foer won the memory competition and still managed to misplace his car…
My working memory was still limited by the same magical number seven that constrains everyone else. Any kind of information that couldn’t be neatly converted into an image and dropped into a memory palace was just as hard for me to retain as it had always been. I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed to have remained fundamentally unchanged.
Foer discusses why we need to work on our memories even when we have to-do lists, note pads, and computers to do it for us:
…even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spider-web that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.
It is easy to see (from my own experience) that the more you know the easier it is to learn new subjects, comprehend complex issues, and even understand richer jokes.