>Title: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Books
PP: 320 pages
I wasn’t expecting great things from this book, since I’m the kind of person who tends to abandon popular science titles halfway through. But it gripped me from the start, probably because the facts are assembled along the spine of a well-written and absorbing narrative of self-discovery.
When science journalist Foer covers the US Memory Championship he’s torn between wonder and pity for the socially challenged, geeky competitors. Surely they can’t be normal people? We’ve all heard of savants who can perform superhuman feats of memory, but as he gets talking to these mental athletes (as they prefer to be described), they all say that it’s a skill anyone is capable of learning, given sufficient commitment to practice several hours a week.
When the young English memory champion Ben Cooke offers to tutor him, Foer agrees to test the hypothesis that within a year a regular guy like him can improve his memory sufficiently to compete in the US Memory Championship – and that’s where things get really interesting. Cooke trains him in the “Memory Palace” technique, a time-honoured strategy to make random memories stick by turning them into vivid (sometimes rude) images and locating them in various locations in a building that exists inside the mind. It sounds flaky, but the point behind the device is that we are hard-wired to remember the physical details of our environments better than strings of intellectual information.
And it has a long and venerable history, covered by Foer in one of the book’s most interesting chapters. We have numerous modern devices to store information for us, but that wasn’t always so. At one time, when books were scarce and expensive, humanity’s ability to retain and pass on knowledge depended almost entirely on remembering it by heart, and in the ancient world a person was judged by their ability to be a good memorizer. We’re tapping into an inborn, universal mental ability that has been neglected for generations.
This is a fascinating journey through the arcane circuit of the super-memorizers of the world circuit, a tale of personal determination and triumph, a quest to discover what words like “ordinary” really mean. Foer talks with some interesting people along the way – Tony Buzan (whom he admires but distrusts, without quite knowing why), ‘Brainman’ Daniel Tammett and, most heartbreaking, an elderly American man who can’t remember anything that happened to him since he was twenty years old, and exists in an eternal present. Whilst this isn’t a self-help book that will take you through strategies to improve your own memory (try Tony Buzan for that), it does challenge us to rethink our assumptions and consider how concentrated effort can improve human performance in multiple areas. It worked for Foer (he won the 2006 US Memory Championship) and even for me – I built my own little memory palace and can remember my car registration number at last – I just think of a bee outside my front door, then a kangaroo, then the flat where I used to live…