An epidemic of amnesia, as potent as one of the surreal plagues inGabriel García Márquez’s novels, seems to have hit our culture. It’s not just aging baby boomers who are complaining about their lousy memories. Their kids, too, have forgotten how to remember phone numbers, driving directions and the basic data of daily life. After all, why bother to memorize anything when there are cellphones and Google to do it for you?
In his captivating new book, “Moonwalking With Einstein,” the young journalist Joshua Foer tackles the subject of memory the way George Plimpton tackled pro football and boxing. After a year of memory training, this novice not only began competing against the country’s best mental athletes but also unexpectedly found himself in the finals of the U.S.A. Memory Championships. His story shows, he says, that “our memories are indeed improvable” and that there are established techniques — pioneered by the Greeks and Romans — to help train the brain.
“Moonwalking With Einstein,” which grew out of an article for Slate, and which in 2006 reportedly earned its author, then 23, a $1.2 million advance, has a lot in common with Malcolm Gladwell’s best sellers: it popularizes scientific concepts in a breezy, accessible fashion while cheerfully dispensing some practical insights and lots of entertaining anecdotes. But whereas Mr. Gladwell’s 2008 book,“Outliers,” reads like a parody of his own formula, devolving into an unconvincing mash-up of gauzy hypotheses and highly selective illustrations, Mr. Foer writes in these pages with fresh enthusiasm. His narrative is smart and funny and, like the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, it’s informed by a humanism that enables its author to place the mysteries of the brain within a larger philosophical and cultural context.
In the course of the book (which provided the basis for a recent New York Times Magazine article), we meet Mr. Foer’s memory coach, Ed Cooke, “a young grandmaster” of memory from England, who has learned the bulk of “Paradise Lost” by heart (“at the rate of 200 lines per hour”), and who is now working his way through Shakespeare. Mr. Cooke’s “philosophy of life is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about 10 years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed.” We also meet Ben Pridmore, a world memory champion, who “could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour” and any poem handed to him.
How did Mr. Foer come to join the ranks of these competitive mnemonists? How did he go from being a guy with an average memory — who regularly forgot his friends’ phone numbers and where he left his car keys (or, for that matter, his car) — to being one of those extraterrestrials able to memorize a deck of cards in 1 minute 40 seconds? The chronicle of his metamorphosis forms the spine of this engaging book.
As Mr. Foer works on improving his memory, he learns a lot about how the brain operates, and in doing so he gives us some intriguing asides about things like “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (“we can only think about roughly seven things at a time”); the “O.K. plateau”(by which people improve at a skill until they achieve an acceptable level of competence, then hit a seemingly insurmountable wall); “Ribot’s Law” (which suggests that older memories are more stable because the more a memory is revisited in our minds, the more it is consolidated and integrated into a web of other connections); and the “curve of forgetting,” quantified by a German psychologist who found that in the first hour after learning a set of nonsense syllables, more than half of them would be forgotten; after a day, another 10 percent would disappear; and after a month, another 14 percent.
Mr. Foer provides a brief history of memorization and the declining role it plays in modern culture, where books, photographs, museums and digital media have promoted “the externalization of memory” and changed the very notion of erudition and what it means to be an educated person.
Before writing was common, human beings had to use their own brains for information storage, and before books were indexed — making it possible to gain access to them in a nonlinear way — people labored under the “imperative to hold” books’ contents in their own mental hard drives simply to find particular bits of information. Poets in the oral tradition, like Homer, relied on repetition and rhythms and other patterns to recite their work from memory, and in the ancient world, exceptional memories were both exalted and widely known.
“King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army,” Mr. Foer writes, citing Pliny the Elder’s report in “Natural History,” a first-century encyclopedia. “Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people.”
Mr. Foer adds: “There are plenty of reasons not to take everything Pliny says at face value (he also reported the existence of a race of dog-headed people in India), but the sheer volume of anecdotes about extraordinary memories in the classical world is itself telling.”
In ancient times, Mr. Foer goes on, students were not only taught what to remember but also “how to remember it” — they were instructed in the same techniques that he would learn from his memory coach, Mr. Cooke. Those techniques are based around the notion that the human brain (which developed at a time when our ancestors’ survival depended on remembering “where to find food and resources, and the route home”) is better at remembering images and places than abstract concepts like numbers and words, and that the trick for remembering is, therefore, in Mr. Cooke’s words, “to change whatever boring thing is being imputed into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.”
As Mr. Foer explains it, this process of “elaborative encoding” involves converting information (like a string of numbers or a shopping list) into a series of “engrossing visual images” — the “funnier, lewder and more bizarre the better.” Those images can then be mentally arranged “within an imagined space” known as a “memory palace,” which doesn’t even have to be a building. They can be routes through a town, station stops along a railway or signs of the zodiac, Mr. Foer adds, as long as “there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.”
To remember a list, for instance, Mr. Cooke instructed Mr. Foer to imagine each item (pickled garlic, cottage cheese, salmon, six bottles of white wine, and so on) in as vivid and embellished detail as possible, and then mentally distribute them along a route through a familiar edifice (in this case, his childhood home). The exercise, Mr. Cooke explained, would exploit the finely turned spatial memory possessed by human beings to structure and store the information.
First, Mr. Foer was to visualize a large bottle of pickled garlic (whatever that is) standing in his family driveway in place of a car. Next, he was to picture “an enormous wading-pool-size tub of cottage cheese” at the front door and to imagine the model Claudia Schiffer swimming in that tub of curds; and so on down the list, in each case finding as creative and, well, as memorable an image as possible.
If this sounds awfully complicated, it’s even worse when it comes to memorizing numbers (which must be converted into phonetic sounds, which “can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace”).
Why would anyone go to all this trouble to win a memory competition, or show off at a party? Mr. Foer tells us that his excursion into the world of competitive memory taught him “to pay attention to the world around” him and to appreciate the repository of images, ideas and analogies that memorized texts or carefully learned facts can impart.
More important, he says, he learned to appreciate the role that memory plays in shaping our identities and perceptions. “Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: all these essentially human acts depend on memory,” he writes near the end of this appealing book. “Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged.”
This book is available at Liberty Books