Book review: Moonwalking with Einstein

I recently attended a presentation on how we can improve our memories. It turned out to be a bit of a mismatch to my interests–I want to know how we can improve our recall of LONG-PAST memories, while the presenter was interested in teaching how to improve recall of RECENTLY-ACQUIRED information, like the name of the person you were just introduced to. (Yes, I would definitely benefit from that!)

Waffling over whether to sign up for the fellow’s workshop, I e-mailed him to ask about the applicability of his techniques to reminiscence-recall. Roger Seip called me within minutes and we had a nice chat. He recommended a book.

I still haven’t decided whether to sign up for the workshop, but I read the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. The book is both an inquiry into how memory works and an account of Foer’s transformation from a young journalist curious about whether he could improve his memory to winner of the U.S. Memory Championships, by way of a year spent among the decidedly offbeat characters who care about memory competitions. (The title comes from a memory device the author uses–goofy mental images.)

Moonwalking falls somewhere between science journalism and memoir, and it’s quite readable–like a travel guide to a place you wouldn’t personally want to visit, but would like to know more about.

While I never quite hit the kind of paydirt that would give me new insights into my work helping people recall and write about their lives, I did gather a smattering of factoids and observations to share with you. Here goes:

  • Monotony collapses time. Novelty unfolds it. To remember more, change up your routines. Take vacations. Gather new experiences that can serve to anchor your memories.
  • As memories age, they change. Each time we recall a memory we reintegrate it with our whole web of other memories, and that reshapes it somewhat. Recall it again and you’ll reshape it a bit more. That’s how a memory of a shared childhood event can years later be recalled completely differently  by each person present. Sigmund Freud atually noted that older memories are often recalled as if captured by a third person holding a camera, instead of as through one’s own eyes. What’s up with that?
  • To remember, repeat with rhythm and rhyme. Finding patterns and structures in information is what the brain is structured to do. Poems–better yet songs–are structuring devices that help us remember. (Ask me to sing you the books of the Bible sometime–I won a church prize at age 9 for memorizing them all–with a calypso beat.)
  • Memory is place-based. Our brains were built for the Pleistocene. What mattered to hunter-gatherers? Where to find the good stuff (that antelope herd), where to avoid the bad stuff (the poison berries or lion’s den). Memory-competition nerds work with elaborate memory palaces to put memories of items in a place from which each can be recalled. To remember a specific item (event, name, factoid, whatever) “put” it in a place. Make the place vivid–make the memory itself vivid with images, like a moonwalking Albert Einstein–and you’ll recall it. (Foer recommends low humor and sexy imagery for best results. Your memory is apparently a frat boy.)
  • Memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin. Why do the words “inventory” and “invent” share a Latin root? Creativity is an aptitude for making associations, an ability to form connections between existing ideas to create something new. What you remember (your inventory) stocks the well from which you create (invent).
  • Memory is a spiderweb. It catches new information and grows bigger. The bigger, the more it catches.  Mind maps (a web-like notation technique) visually represent the web of associations our brains use to navigate our memories.

Additional curious factoid gleaned from Moonwalking–early books were really just memory-aids for performance of memorized texts. Before writing, there was no way to preserve thoughts but to remember them. The earliest books were rolled scrolls, with no more points of access than a cassette tape, and no indexes, tables of contents, or even pages to flip.

The earliest Greek texts were written not only on continuous scrolls, but in one long continuous line of capital letters. ONELONGLINEOFCAPITALLETTERS. You couldn’t easily read such a text unless you already knew what it said. Thus, the book as cheat-sheet preceded the book as source of new information.

Breaking the scroll into pages and binding them into book-blocks came along about the year 400. The space–and other punctuation marks–would not become a fixture of texts until the 11th century. The concordance of the Bible (the first index) was completed in the 13th century. Readers could stop remembering what they read. You could finally look it up.

Today with blogs, tweets, email, digital photos and videos, we have perfected external memory. But we’re still struggling with the finding aids. Nobody’s indexing our lives but the spider in the brain, our (usually untrained) faculty for memory.

Finally, Foer addresses the question underlying the book–why bother investing in training one’s memory in an age of perfect external memory devices? Foer’s answer: “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory.”

I’m not saying this book is everyone’s cup of chai, but it held my attention all the way to the epilogue. Interesting stuff here with which to stock your well.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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One Response to Book review: Moonwalking with Einstein

  1. Thanks for this interesting post, Sarah. I’m going to put Moonwalking on my wish list – I’m fascinated by the way the brain works. My own memory feat: in fourth grade I memorized the Gettysburg Address and all the Presidents in order, in exchange for a giant chocolate candy bar from my teacher. I remember deciding that I wanted to be able to perform the parlor trick of reciting the presidents when I was older, so for a couple years I repeated them to myself every night in bed. It was my only form of prayer I guess, prayer to the God of memory. It worked, and there have been more than a few times when that information actually came in handy, mostly during trivia contests. Funny enough, I have more trouble today remembering the Presidents who served after 1968 than with the earlier ones.

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