Moonwalking With Einstein: An Adventure in Mnemonics

This post is an adaptation of my Goodreads review of Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. 

This book drove my wife crazy. I kept stopping to share what I was learning. It ignited my brain and burned like a rocket at Cape Canaveral.

Cover

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

I first heard of mind palaces several years ago in a class on the history of East Asia. A missionary, Matteo Ricci had tried to share the old European method of the mind palace with the Chinese, a method which he himself used to memorize thousands of Chinese characters, and which had been in use for centuries in Europe. I was intrigued by the idea. Ricci memorized characters by placing them in an imaginary space in his mind, moving from one to the next to remember them. I ultimately dismissed the idea at the time. After all, if mind palaces were so great, someone would have taught it to me by then, right? Right?

Joshua Foer, the author of Moonwalking With Einstein, did a TED talk exposing the lost and ancient art of memory. In it, Foer finally taught me the basics of the mind palace technique. I started experimenting with it and using it. My first real attempt was to memorize a deck of cards using locations in Disneyland to place mnemonic images. I did it. It took me a half hour or so and I wasn’t 100% perfect at it, but the results were good enough to get my attention. I haven’t brought a written grocery list to the store with me since then–I just use a mind palace. For someone like me, with non-verbal learning disability, it’s great to have one less little piece of paper to deal with. I didn’t have to rely on pesky little pieces of paper or notes on my smartphone. I could just keep the information conveniently and reliably stored in my head.

Working with a mind palace on the most modest levels raised the same question in my mind that it raised in Foer’s: what else could my brain do that I had never been aware of?

Foer chronicles his own journey of self-discovery as he allows himself to be studied by scientists, cavorts with international memory champions, and even sets a course for becoming a memory champion himself. He worked just minutes a day over the course of a year and became the American National Memory Champion.

Foer goes well beyond the esoteric world of competitive mnemonics. He delves into history, psychology, and education to explore our culture’s relationship with memory and outlines an essential history of both memory techniques and our external memory technologies. I’ll never look at a book or a Google search the same way again.

Hot and cold

Foer explores the extremes fearlessly. My impression that memory athletes work very hard with their minds to accomplish very little of any consequence. Their obsession, while impressive, exhilarating, and fascinating in many ways, also seems to be all-consuming. This is a breed of men and women who have been swallowed up. They’ve gotten lost in their mind palaces, or are at least threatened by this possibility. Sure, they could be obsessed with conspiracy theories or crystal meth, but obsession is obsession: anything can destroy you if taken to extremes.

On the other end of the spectrum, Foer explores the lives of people who live without memory–who don’t know their own reflections from one moment to the next. With either extreme, Foer emerges from the depths with fascinating insights that help him come to some valuable take-aways.

Memory as raw material

Most importantly for me is the applications for creativity. Foer points out that while external memories like books and smartphones can be useful, none have ever created anything. Creation is a human endeavor powered by human memory. Foer points out that Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, was mother to the muses, and suggests that this was no coincidence. Creation is an act of making connections with existing elements. The more your mind holds, the more connections are possible. This is reason alone for me to pursue gathering and organizing my memories more effectively. Grocery lists are only the beginning for me.

Mind metropolis

Foer offers valuable practical advice and techniques for memorizing everything from very long strings of digits and poems to detailed biographies of people you’re getting to know for the first time. I’ve been trying to put that to use. But that isn’t the focus of his book. Many authors on this subject stop at techniques to make money on a how-to book, but Foer is a more committed writer than that. This book doesn’t just ask and answer how, but also why.

His teachers in mnemonics also advocate for readying more narrowly, but with more intention and intensity: advice which I’ve already started putting to use. At Foer’s suggestion in this book, I’ve begun constructing not just a mind palace, but a whole city of them in my head, a mind metropolis, storing all kinds of information, mostly relating to my work as a writer, editor, and poet. Books that are important to me are getting their own towers furnished with the ideas and facts I want to have at my command. Starting at Chapter 7 Moonwalking With Einstein has one of these of its own. This is why I was able to recall facts like Mnemosyne and Matteo Ricci without having to look them up while writing this.

Education

Foer also presents a valuable critique of the way we’re teaching our kids, having all but completely abandoned memorization–once a cornerstone of western education.

Understanding, context, global learning, these are all great. But critical thinking skills aren’t much good if there’s nothing in your head to think critically about. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but we can still bring it back inside to resuscitate it, Foer suggests. I intend to do just that with my own son’s education, regardless of our current entrenched system’s resistance to reform.

Memory’s Mt. Everests

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Moonwalking With Einstein is one of the books that has changed my life. I might have found all these insights myself eventually, but Foer saved me a few Mt. Everests of time and effort. I go forward now standing, at least in part, on his shoulders. In the end, that’s what the best teachers, or the best books, can do for us.

This blog will be a document of my steps forward into my own growing mind metropolis. This adventure will take me inward, yes, but also outward. My hope is that in cultivating my memory I can be a more effective creator, a more functional person, and a more engaged participant in the human experience.

Feel free to join me.

 

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June 25, 2014 · 18:54