ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ Herman's blog

Moonwalking with Einstein - Short thoughts

It's been a while since I've read a book that covers something as novel as the art and science of being able to remember everything. Moonwalking with Einstein was certainly interesting. It follows the author, Josh Foer, on his journey to becoming the top mental athlete in the USA.

For those who don't know, memory championships are fairly obscure events where participants perform seemingly impossible feats of memory like memorizing multiple decks of cards and recalling them perfectly or recalling a page full of binary digits in perfect order.

The feats, while extraordinary, are accomplished using the ancient art of mnemonics; a series of memory techniques that use our innate ability to clearly remember images and places (especially if they are lewd or novel). The data the mnemonist is trying to remember are chunked (broken into smaller pieces) and associated with images and places.

The book runs readers through a few of these techniques (the Major System, Person-Action-Object, and the Memory Palace), which had me memorizing my shopping list and a bunch of books on the nearby shelf. It worked perfectly.

The usefulness of a good memory is discussed at length, and the book points out that modern humans rarely use their memory, rather looking up information than retaining it. Historically the ability to externalize information was a luxury (due to the availability and expense of books and writing material) and most people had to find a way to retain all information in their memory. A few religious groups today still practise the art of memorising their sacred texts.

It also argues that for contextual learning and novel ideation to take place, the person needs to have memorized the knowledge necessary to form those connections. It follows that if, as a species, we abandon memorization, we will have fewer novel ideas.

“Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”

The book concludes, however, that while it is useful to have a great memory, what mental athletes do is more akin to a parlour trick and that real-world applications for that level of memorization, bar studying for an exam, are few and far between.

As for how this book impacted me; I have a newfound respect for memory as a whole, and will be practicing keeping information (generally my reading list, which grows daily) in my memory palace. I'm also becomming adept at remembering phone numbers, mostly cause I think it's neat.

“I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”


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