Moonwalking with Einstein begins with the ancient Greek tale of Simonides and the way he created a memory palace with his mind. What follows is a young journalist’s exploration and investigation into past and present techniques for remembering, neurological studies on the human brain, stories about people with the best and worst memories in the world; and, eventually a description about how the art and science of memory can benefit us all. In his own quest to know more, remember more, and do it in the most productive ways, Joshua Foer’s journey of discovery makes him and his reader believers in the art of memory.
When Foer finds himself at the U.S. Memory Championship, he observes an unworldly amount of skill among its competitors. The contest requires entrants to complete tasks daunting to the average person: they must “memorize a previously unpublished poem spanning several pages, lists of binary digits (record: 4,140 in thirty minutes), shuffled decks of playing cards, a list of historical dates, names, and faces (120).” After surveying the situation and befriending a few participants, Ed, Lukas, and Tony Buzan, a man who has made a fortune in the “brain exercise” industry, Foer is told that the people with the best memories in the world don’t have overtly high IQs. In fact, they assure him that with work and a couple hours of practice each day, he could be one of them in a year. With this advice in mind, Foer decides to take the idea seriously; his goal is to learn everything he can about memory, past and present, and practice techniques he learns.
His research and dedication are thorough, which draws the reader in as he turns back the clock to find when, where, and why the art of memory began. Using information from historical texts and interviews with neurology’s renowned doctor and researcer, K. Anders Ericcson, Foer begins to understand ways that the human brain has evolved. By rewinding thousands of years in to human past, the reader is asked to consider what our hunting and gathering ancestors were designed to do. The answer fits perfectly to show the way the mind operates today. Memory was used as a tool to provide spatial recognition for people needing to remember maps and routes to game or plants in their minds. Before writing existed, humans used pictures in their heads to craft stories, thoughts, and speeches for others to hear. But how do people recall such immense amounts of knowledge today in a world where writing and technology have aided the brain so much that people have forgotten older methods?
Foer doesn’t only want to comprehend how memory champions perfect the art of memory, he knows that learning about the lives of exceptional people scientists have studied could lead dim understand why they do it. In addition to humans being better at storing and retrieving images, humans have the innate ability to access the potential of the brain without trying. Foer tells his readers about subject S., the man who could remember everything. S. was studied and questioned by a psychologist for over thirty years. Perhaps the most important information he supplied, is that he places memories on a familiar path and retrieves them later. This idea fits perfectly with the ancient Greek formula for remembering.
The reader is coached in the process as Foer describes his first lesson, which is given by World Memory Championship contender, Ed. The scientific and historical pieces of the puzzle are ready to line up. Ed refers to Simonides’ memory palace, the Greek story Foer cites in the intro to his text. Now Foer can learn and remember using the Greek tradition. How can Foer and ordinary people use the secret to remember anything in the world they choose? The answer is both shockingly simple and an intense workout for the brain. One must focus on a place they are extremely familiar with: childhood home, high school, or the neighborhood surrounding one’s home. Next, a list to learn and store in the memory is required. If using a childhood home, a person might begin at the front door, picturing the familiar image of the doorway or front step. Next, one must place an item from the list in the spot to be remembered and later recalled. Ed suggests that humans are best at remembering sexual and humorous thoughts and images, so if, a list included chlorine for a pool, one might choose to picture a child’s pool with a sexy person sitting inside in front of the door. These sorts of images must continue to be constructed from the items in the list Each item is placed on a path one can remember in the familiar place, the memory palace.
As a reader, even following this minor exercise is a challenging brain teaser. Since people have allowed themselves to use their minds in a world where a note is a far better option to taking the time to train the brain to place memories on a path, it is doubtful this technique will remerge as a popular device for recall. Foer admits that even while being paid to do the research, it is extremely difficult for him to push his brain to its limits. It is intriguing to learn what the mind is capable of given the right training and conditioning. Still, most people might conclude that truly rearranging the way the brain works is too daunting a task to attempt.