Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer

Summary: For an assignment as a journalist, Foer attends the U.S. Memory Championship.  There he is surprised not only by what the competitors can achieve (memorizing the order a deck of cards in a few minutes; memorizing huge lists of words or numbers), but by many of the competitors' assurances that they are not particularly special--anyone, with training, they say, can be capable of staggering feats of memorization.  Foer decides to spend the next year training for the Championship while exploring the nature of memory itself and humankind's relationship and understanding of memory throughout time.

Musings: I'm coming to find out how endlessly fascinating I find the human body.  It's simply "us," and yet it's so unique and there's so much we don't know about it.  Moonwalking with Einstein delves into just one small aspect of one part of the human body--this elusive concept of "memory"--through both research and personal narrative.

What first grabbed my attention is just how far memory can go when pressed.  We feel like we're forgetting things all the time, and yet there are people who, for example, have memorized tens of thousands of the digits of pi.  At the beginning of the book, Foer is skeptical that such feats can be learned; it's easier to assume that such people are simply extraordinary.  And while they might be extraordinary in their willingness to train, Foer also shows that memorization skills can be taught and steadily improved upon. 

At its most basic, large memorization involves turning the items to be memorized into images.  Our mind retains images far better than it does words or digits.  Various techniques exist for memorizing large quantities of information in a short amount of time, and once you learn them, heavy memorization almost seems like a trick.  That's not to say it's easy, but rather that it is an acquired skill, not an innate ability.

I tried out the most basic technique (the memory palace) myself, following along with Foer to memorize a list of 15 random "to-do" items.  It took me about 10 minutes to memorize (including reading the chapter describing it), and it is absolutely and completely effective.  I remembered all 15 items at the time, an hour later, and I still remember them today--two days later.  In 10 minutes I probably could have also learned the items by rote, but I've no doubt I would not still remember them today if I had.

I was giddy and excited by what I did, but I also had the same feeling following that Foer did.  So what?  It may be fun to impress friends at parties with outrageous memorization, but is there any point?  Does it really help with anything when we have technology and even pen and paper to do the remembering for us?

This is a question that Foer spends much of the book trying to solve, and I'm not sure he comes to a clear answer.  He does posit that we learn best through association, and in order to best associate, memorization of a wide variety of things can be useful.  He also explores humans' relationship with memorization over time, from the favored manner of learning in schools to the inhumane rote tedium it's often labeled as today.  

Moonwalking with Einstein didn't leave me convinced of the importance of memorization, but it did completely absorb me and encourage me to wonder more about what our brains are able of accomplishing.  Foer effectively integrates his own experiences training for the Championship with historical and modern research, which is the kind of nonfiction I like best.  It's an entertaining and worthwhile read.

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