Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer. Penguin Press, 2011
When Joshua Foer showed up at the U.S. Memory Championships in 2005, he thought
he was going to write a quirky story about some brainy oddballs with impressive memories. He didn’t suspect that this venture would introduce him to the complexities of mnemonic devices, teach him some ancient history and lead him to uncover his own mental prowess. He returned the following year as a top contender.
While researching Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer learned that becoming a grand master of memory requires accomplishing several seemingly impossible objectives. You have to remember the order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in less than an hour, 1,000 digits in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes. The winner takes home a trophy and a ticket to the World Memory Championships in London.
Foer knew he had an average, even slipshod, memory—one that could retain about seven items in the short term. Somehow, though, he learned how to jam his brain with more random information than he ever thought possible.
He was able to beef up his memory by learning mnemonic techniques. These methods, first employed by a Greek poet in the fifth century b.c. and later by artists and intellectuals from Cicero to Mark Twain, are based on a concept called elaborative encoding, which posits that the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to remember. Our brains are ill equipped to remember symbols, such as numbers and playing cards. But by translating dull sets of digits into vivid (even lewd) images, it is possible to remember large amounts of information. For example, when Foer wanted to remember “e-mail Sophia,” he conjured up an image of Sophia Loren sitting on the lap of a “she-male” who was typing on a computer in the den in his childhood home.
This memorization process engages areas of the brain involved in spatial navigation and visual recognition, including the right posterior hippocampus. In ancient Rome, these mnemonic techniques were considered so routine that they did not merit elaboration, but by the 20th century they had nearly vanished, until the World Memory Championships began in 1991.
Foer’s history of memory is rich with information about the nature of memory and how it makes us who we are. Now that he has committed the story to paper, perhaps there is far less chance we will forget how to remember.