Book review: Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Posted June 6, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 1 Comment

Book review:  Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua FoerMoonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
Published by Penguin Press on March 2011
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Source: my shelves

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Joshua Foer is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on science.  He has written articles for National Geographic, Slate, Esquire, The New York Times and The Washington Post.  The story he tells in Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything starts in 2005 with a trip from Washington, D.C. to Pennsylvania, during the course of which he learns about the world’s strongest man.  This leads him to wonder what it would be like for the world’s strongest person to meet the world’s smartest person, brains and brawn in the same room.  Foer finds that pinning down the world’s smartest person isn’t as easy as just searching the internet, but his search does lead him to Ben Pridmore, the reigning world memory champion at the time.  Pridmore “could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour… the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in thirty-two seconds… in five minutes he could permanently commit to memory what happened on ninety-six different historical dates… the man knew fifty thousand digits of pi.”

Foer, who describes his own memory as “average at best,” became very interested in these memory champs and the contests they competed in:  their respective countries’ memory championships and the World Memory Championship.  How did these people learn to memorize all of that stuff?  What did it take to become a memory champ?  Could Foer himself learn these memory techniques and become a memory champ?  Moonwalking With Einstein chronicles Foer’s research on the topic of memory, his own memory training, and his participation in the 2006 U.S. and World Memory Championships.  It teaches us that anyone can improve their memory by using certain memory techniques.

The memory technique Foer describes in his book is thought to have been invented 2500 years ago by Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet.  It is a mnemonic technique known as the “memory palace,” and it uses a person’s experiences and imagination to help them remember things.  This technique was used by many people to memorize speeches, names, historical facts, poems and even whole books.  The people who practice the art of memory today have resurrected a technique that was widely used up until the advent of mass printing in the fifteenth century.  It eventually went by the wayside, being “relegated to carnival sideshows and tacky self-help books.”  Today of course, we have computers and smart phones and such to help us remember everything from phone numbers to grocery lists to business appointments.

Foer also dives into the neuroscience behind brain and memory function, which I found very interesting.  I have always been fascinated by neuroscience and psychology, so this was probably my favorite part of the book.  He writes about a man with synesthesia who automatically remembers everything, and a man with severe short-term memory loss who remembers almost nothing.  He writes about people who are experts in their field and what it took for them to become experts.  He writes about Kim Peek, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man.  He writes about a variety of neurological disorders that affect memory in good and bad ways.

When I first heard about this book I thought, ‘Great!  My memory stinks because I have to remember everything, not only for myself, but for my family, too… this book is going to teach me how to remember it all so I never have to worry about forgetting anything ever again.  I won’t have to be so dependent on my darn smart phone in order to remember the (at least) 15 things I have to remember every day.’  Well, it didn’t exactly work out that way.  What I found is that there aren’t a whole lot of practical, daily applications for this memory technique (as Foer comes to understand, as well).  It’s still easier to put people’s email addresses and phone numbers in my smart phone, along with any birthdays or appointments I need to remember.  It won’t help me remember where I put my car keys.  But I am using it once in a while to help me remember what I need to buy at the grocery store every week and it works very well for that.  I also think it would be a great way for kids and young adults in grade school or in college to remember some of the things they are being taught, as an alternative to rote memorization (which is also discussed in the book).  This technique would be a good thing for businessmen and women to remember people’s names at meetings or at conventions; it would also be a good way for folks to remember the names of people whom they’re introduced to at parties and such.  There are other ways in which the memory palace technique can be used that are discussed in the book, and some people may find them very useful.

Whether or not I could use what I learned from this book in my everyday life became unimportant to me once I started reading.  I found Moonwalking With Einstein very interesting and I learned so much about the subject of memory and the way our brains function.  I also learned a great deal about the history of the art of memory which I found equally interesting.  Joshua Foer is a great writer and he’s got a great sense of humor; I laughed quite a bit during the course of reading this book.  Are you interested in learning how the memory champs of the world manage to remember so much?  Are you interested in learning about the neuroscience behind our memories and how our brains function (in a fun way)?  Are you curious about how a journalist with an “average at best memory” one year went on to win the U.S. Memory Championship the next year?  If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, get yourself a copy of Moonwalking With Einstein and give it a read.  It’s entertaining and interesting, very well-written and very well-researched, and I think the memory techniques it teaches have the potential to be quite helpful in certain situations.

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  • Yeah, yeah MOONWALKING! I’ve been trying to build memory palaces, but I get bored/lazy.