What do chicken sexers, chess masters, and SWAT officers have in common? They all become good at what they do by memorizing a vast amount of highly specialized information that allows them to make instant judgments. Moonwalking with Einsein
is about memory, and is the most interesting non-fiction book I've read in the past year. It's full of interesting facts, a history of the art of memory and how it relates to the history of reading, and a lot of surprising information I did not know about how memory works.
The author, Joshua Foer, was initially just writing a magazine article on the U.S. Memory Championship. This is a highly geeky competition for a handful of obsessive "mental athletes" who compete in events like memorizing long strings of random numbers, decks of cards, and lines of poetry. The tricks they can do are impressive, and for the true champions, may seem to border on superhuman. What Foer learns, though, is that they are just tricks - learned techniques. In fact, with few exceptions, all
those fantastic feats of extraordinary memory you have heard about are not tricks performed by savants with superhuman recall, but people with perfectly ordinary brains who have learned special memory techniques. Anyone can do it
The key to becoming really great at memorizing, and the reason why everyone doesn't learn these (fairly simple, when you get down to it) techniques and impress their friends at parties, is that memory techniques are like playing chess or the piano — anyone can do it, and anyone who puts in serious effort can become pretty good at it (at least good enough to impress people who aren't very good at it), but to become great
at it requires lots and lots of practice and years of study, like any other skill.
Still, it was quite a revelation to me that this is a skill
that anyone can learn. There is really no such thing as "photographic memory" and those guys who memorize the entire Bible cover to cover or can recite pi out to thousands of digits do not actually have memories, or brains, that are any better than yours or mine.
To prove it, Foer decides to enter the U.S. Memory Championship himself. I won't spoil the ending, but after just one year of training, he does very well indeed. Part of the book is his own odyssey of memory competition and reporting on the U.S. and international memory competition scene (American competitors he likens to the Jamaican bobsledding team - very enthusiastic, but not considered serious competitors internationally; what breaks records in the U.S. is barely qualifying in European championships.)
So what are these "tricks"? Foer describes the techniques in the book, but basically, you learn to build "memory palaces" constructed from places very familiar to you, and stock them with vivid, memorable, often outrageous images (a 14th century author of a treatise on memory techniques offended churchmen by admitting that he used images of, ahem, comely maidens in his memory palaces) that you associate with whatever it is you want to memorize. So if you are memorizing numbers, you might come up with a system in which 137 is Britney Spears performing a karate kick while standing on the back of a giant turtle, and you place her in your living room, and then the next chunk of numbers is another image which is in the hallway to your bedroom. If this sounds unlikely or bizarre, read the book (or go read one of the books that actually teaches the techniques). To prove it works, I am typing this right now off the top of my head without having spent any time with brute force, rote memorization:
- A jar of pickled garlic
- Cottage cheese
- Peat-smoked salmon
- Six bottles of white wine
- Three pairs of socks
That's a partial grocery list Foer gives you in one chapter — as much of it as I bothered to memorize when he gave a quickie tutorial to demonstrate how the technique works. This is several days after reading it, and according to the brain scientists Foer interviews, it's possible that that list will stick in my head for months or years. Seriously, the "palace of memory" works!
The only problem is, as Foer points out, there actually aren't that many situations in the modern world where this kind of memorization is actually useful
. We now have externalized memories in the form of books, computers, sticky notes, etc. Memorizing huge volumes of information that you could just as easily grab with a Google search doesn't seem worth it.
But these "memory palaces" go back to ancient Greece, and at one time, every educated person used these techniques. That is why lawyers, orators, poets, kings, generals, doctors, monks, and so on, were famous for being able to give long speeches or recite back a long body of work from memory - everyone learned to do it. Before the printing press, when books were rare and expensive, people wouldn't just read as many books as they could get their hands on, they'd make a serious study of a handful of books in their lifetime and pretty much commit each volume to memory.
Really, really interesting book. Will change the way you think about memory and intelligence, expertise, and maybe even reading. My highest non-fiction recommendation!