Moonwalking with Einstein : the art and science of remembering everything

by Joshua Foer

Paperback, 2011

Status

Available

Publication

London : Allen Lane, 2011.

Description

Why don't some waiters need to write down orders? How are the best violinists able to memorize a new score after playing it only once? Why can some people commit entire books to memory ? while a few can only remember their most recent thought? To answer these questions, Joshua Foer spent a year talking to memory experts and neuroscientists, savants and amnesiacs, chess masters and historians of memory. He learnt the principles of memory techniques, from Cicero to modern day 'memory palaces', and even undertook intense training under a Grand Master to become a US Memory Champion. Looking at everything from why London cabbies' brains develop differently to how Apache Indians remember landmarks, Foer discovers the mechanics of memory and reveals how the brain can be exercised like any other muscle. In fact, he shows, with the right training, we can all achieve mastery of our memory. Intelligent, entertaining and with a cast of unforgettable characters, Moonwalking with Einstein revives the long-lost tradition of memory training to show us the potential of our minds.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“On average, people squander forty days annually compensating for things they've forgotten.” That seems to be a widely exaggerated number but it does make a good point. We forget A LOT! This is the age of constant information, a continuous barrage of…let's face it, crap but I think our brains are structured to filter out most of what we see, read and hear. So, how do can we remember the important things?
Josh Foer, younger brother of Jonathan, is a science journalist with an average memory. He begins to explore the world of mental athletes, an oddball bunch of misfits, who compete in Memory Championships. Foer quickly learns that these “brainy” individuals have normal brains and memory functions but have trained themselves to remember a staggering amount of information. The author then decides to train himself, with some help and then enter the U.S. Memory Championships, where he ends up doing exceptionally well.
This book is a lot of fun and very informative. He does describe the many techniques of memory learning, including the “Memory Palaces”, which are fascinating. Personally, it sounds like to much work, but it sure is enjoyable to read about. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member _Zoe_
I picked up this book after seeing Foer speak at the National Book Festival, and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to write a review immediately. Foer is a journalist who goes to cover the National Memory Championships, and is intrigued by the claims that anyone can learn the memory techniques and excel at the competition. So he decides to devote a year to training his own memory and then competing in the Championships himself, as a fun piece of experimental journalism. In the resulting book, he discusses both his own experiences and all sorts of interesting memory-related issues. He comes across as honest and open when talking about himself, knowledgeable about the various topics that he's researched (coming from a Classics background, I couldn't find fault with his discussion of Homeric composition), and often funny. Possibly my favourite quote from the book: "I decided to make memorizing a part of my daily routine. Like flossing. Except I was actually going to do it." (110)

Some particular things that I want to take away from this reading:

Memory Palaces. The basic concept behind a lot of memorization is to visualize things as ridiculous situations happening in a familiar place. As you walk mentally from room to room, you may see, for example, Bill Clinton copulating with a basketball, which represents the king of diamonds, four of hearts, and seven of clubs. I don't personally plan to come up with complex card-memorizing schemes, but the idea of the memory palace should be useful just for remembering more basic lists of objects or actions.

Expertise. In order to become an expert, you need to get beyond the "okay plateau" by deliberately focusing on improvement: challenging yourself to go beyond "good enough" by figuring out areas of difficulty and actively addressing them. If you're acting on autopilot, you're not going to improve; deliberate challenge, with prompt feedback, is key.

Daniel Tammet. I read Tammet's memoir Born on a Blue Day several years ago, and found it interesting to hear about the thought processes of a savant. Foer, though, thinks that Tammet actually uses more standard memory-type techniques for some of his feats (specifically, multiplying and dividing large numbers in his head, or identifying all the prime numbers up to 10,000), instead of just knowing the answers through some sort of synesthetic process. I don't have a stake in it either way, but I have to admire Foer for taking a difficult position, especially since he could easily have excluded Tammet altogether without having much impact on the overall narrative--and he does say that he "agonized over whether to include Daniel in this book." I found the discussion fascinating.

Basically, Moonwalking with Einstein manages to be entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking all at the same time. It goes beyond the initial question of training for a memory competition and touches on all sorts of interesting related issues. I'd definitely recommend it, and I'll look forward to seeing what Foer writes next.
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LibraryThing member seidchen
I heard Josh Foer reading at the Brookline Booksmith, and while I wasn't so interested in the memory championship, he said just enough about the externalization of memory that I made sure to pick up his book from the library. While the writing at times is, well, not quite polished enough for my taste, I was impressed by the breadth of Foer's inquiries. Yes, much of this book is about the rarefied world of memorization competitions, but Foer skillfully interweaves this personal narrative (which includes some hilarious self-conscious passages) with an investigation of the history of memorization, its role in education and its use in our everyday, conscious encounters. That, for me, is the real value of this book. It peeks under the cover of our assumptions about language, memory, and our own limitations.… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
There is something to be said about a journalist who goes the extra step and participates in the object of his interest and not merely report on it. Joshua Foer did just that -- and at a high level -- winning the US Memory Championship after a year of training. Previously, Foer had covered the national and international events (the Americans are not close to being competitive on the international forum).

Foer describes the tricks he used to memorize things such as decks of cards, face/name combos, and lists of random numbers. Most of the techniques he described I've heard before -- and they still don't make sense to me. Somehow, associating the unfamiliar with a familiar image is supposed to spark near-total recall, but I think I would have problems remembering the familiar images then. Foer contends that anyone can learn this technique however, and even if they don't compete on a national scale, they might impress people at a cocktail party (beginning by remembering all of their names).

Much of the book profiled stars in this competitive field, and discusses the history of the "sport." To me, this part of the book was a little on the dull side -- I just don't find the "sport" all that compelling. Foer's own experiences was the better story, and I was pleased to see his conclusion was something I suspected all along: there is little practical use in such exercises; and at the end of the day, one might recall the order of a deck of cards studied hours earlier, but forget where he put his car keys. Foer declined to defend his national championship on the simple basis that he has better things to spend his time on.

While Moonwalking with Einstein (the title taken from one of his mental images used in remembering) won't teach you how to be a mental superstar at work, amazing your boss with stunning powers of total recall on the most minute detail, Foer does do a good job putting it in perspective and suggesting how we might benefit from improving our own recollections. It was along this vein that he mentioned something I thought could use further elaboration -- perhaps I'll take a shot at writing a book myself expanding on this topic.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
In a single year, author Joshua Foer went from being an average American with a typical memory recall, to becoming the US Memory Champion, breaking the American record of memorizing a random deck of cards in 1:40. Note that's one MINUTE and 40 seconds. Moonwalking with Einstein recounts his year of memory training interspersed with fascinating tidbits about the science of how the human brain works as well as stories of savants and people with unusual mental skills (the man who never forgot). This audiobook was entertaining from start to end and the finale - the US Memory Championships - was as tense and exciting as any major sports event. Surprisingly entertaining and fun. I even selected this for the Goodreads non-fiction award!… (more)
LibraryThing member norabelle414
audiobook - The story of a journalist who sets out to learn about the world of professional mnemonists (people who memorize things) and accidentally becomes the United States Memory Champion.
The latter parts of this book were way better than the bulk of it. I had heard of many of the techniques mentioned in this book, but I also knew that I wasn't going to take the time to use them in everyday life. So I was much more interested in how Joshua did at the championship, and especially his research on whether a man claiming to be a savant was actually utilizing memory techniques but possibly unaware of it.

The best parts were 1) Joshua Foer doesn't take himself or his work too seriously and 2) at the end, everyone gets drunk.
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LibraryThing member NewsieQ
The saga of how Joshua Foer went from coverings the USA Memory Championship as a reporter to being a finalist in the competition a year later is the crux of Moonwalking with Einstein. But the author provides context for readers with sections on the history of memory, the science of memory and stories about the eccentric “memory athletes” and savants he meets along the way.

Moonwalking with Einstein is NOT a how-to book, although the author provides readers with an introduction to some techniques he used to improve his memory over the year the book covers – and a rich bibliography if they desire to learn more. I particularly liked the section on the invention of written language, but every chapter provided me with food for thought and fascinating insights.

The author’s style is clear, light and often, funny – and Moonwalking with Einstein makes for a most interesting read. I’m recommending it for the non-fiction readers’ group at my public library and believe it would engender scintillating discussion.
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LibraryThing member AramisSciant
As someone with an atrocious memory, it was very interesting to read about the subject. Definitely made me want to try some of the techniques even though I got the distinct impression that in the end, they're not very practical in everyday life. I found the writing very good and the research impressive, but in some parts I got the sense that he did take sides early on and his take was a bit slanted about some issues. Still, a good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member RichardHollos
Warning: This book is anachronistic. Memory has become deprecated. Look around you. Most people you see probably have wires coming out of their ears. They only require a tiny bit of brain to process auditory input. The rest is supplanted by Google.

Using the memory techniques described in this book won't make your post-it notes obsolete. They are just too easy to use. But as the author suggests, they will make you more mindful of the world around you, and as Tony Buzan suggests, they'll make you more creative, to boot.… (more)
LibraryThing member 391
Foer is an engaging and eminently readable writer. He details both his experiences training for the US Memory Championships and his scholarship in tracking down every possible lead in the realm of exceptional mnemonists, so the book became both a journalistic research exposition and a personal memoir.

I especially liked his ending thesis on -why- memory was so important, and his final thoughts on how it carries over into the wider world beyond impressive party tricks. This sentence in particular struck me:
"If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you'll be at coming up with new ideas. As Buzan likes to point out, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses."

And I know I've said it already, but Foer's writing style is just superb. He is clear, concise and deeply entertaining, and reading his book was an absolute breeze. I have also applied several of the tricks he describes in my own life; for example, helping my roommate memorize all the dishes and ingredients at her restaurant when she first became a waitress.
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LibraryThing member ncnsstnt
Nice blend of narrative and explanation of techniques. Tried the memory palace trick and it works!
LibraryThing member gbelik
This was a hoot. The author is a reporter who starts out investigating people who enter memory competitions, then decides to enter one himself; he does remarkably well. After all his study and achievement though, he still has trouble remembering where he left his keys. Memory seems to be a rather mechanical skill, rather than a gift. I learned quite a bit about the skill, but this book didn't give me the incentive the master it. It made a good memory seem like a rather shallow thing. A subjective (and sometimes defective) memory seems to offer more… (more)
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Wonderful read. I was introduced via NPR and could not wait to read it. It did not let me down. I feel that I am more capable of remembering the things that I want to remember and it made me want to dig further.

While I expected to be informed of this secret key to memory (and to some degree I did), I did learn that with all secret keys, there is work involved! I have been working on it ever since... fun book. Remember to read it!… (more)
LibraryThing member phh333
Found this book a fascinating retelling of the author's attempt to become the U.S. Memory Champ. Foer gives us a glimpse into the lives of the people competing in these Memory Championships as well as a look at the science of memory and the importance of memorization in the past and present.
LibraryThing member kimreadthis
I enjoyed this book. It inspired me to begin some very basic memory training on my own. The book did drag in certain parts, but overall it was an interesting mix of the history of memory training/mnemonics, techniques, and memoir of the author's attempt to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. I also enjoyed the author's writing style and appreciated the bibliography, endnotes, and index.… (more)
LibraryThing member fist
Entertaining read of how a journalist covers the US memory championships, and decides to enter the contest himself. With interesting digressions on - amongst other things - how our memory works and on savants. His stab at Daniell Hammette (Born on a Blue Day) seems a bit unfair, but otherwise I enjoyed this. As light a read on the human brain and our memory function as you're ever going to find.… (more)
LibraryThing member hailelib
I saw this book on the 'New Book Shelves' at the library soon after seeing it get a favorable mention here on LibraryThing and decided to bring it home. I enjoyed Foer's book which is part history of memory, part exploration of what science has to tell us about how we remember, and part memoir of the year he not only explored the techniques of those who participate in Memory Championships but learned many of these memory techniques and entered the next year's competition himself. Like many of the others who have read the book I would recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member matthewloewen
This book is a wonderful book if you are interested in figuring out techniques for improving your memory. It is a good introduction into the subject, but not extensive enough for those that want to seriously train their memory for competition. Moonwalking with Einstein is a cross between a story of Josh's journey to improve his memory for the USA Championship and the techniques involved in improving your memory.

It is easy reading with good introductory ways to improve memory. Some of the techniques include memory palaces, image memory vs. words, and ways to convert written text to images that you can recall.
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LibraryThing member dallenbaugh
A very enjoyable writing style and interesting subject on the importance of memory through history and in our lives. It was also an adventure for the author on how he was able to improve his own memory, and what it did and did not do for his own life.
LibraryThing member Beyre
This book has some great takeaways for how our memories and minds work, as well as how we can better employ them to get wanted results regarding memory. However, the majority of the book is comprised of case studies ranging from brain injuries and memory loss, to how a professional's mind works in their field of profession, and memory competitions. These are all interesting studies, but if the reader wants to learn more about how to improve their own functions, they will not get much of that here. That being said, the first step in mastering or changing anything begins with a better understanding of the thing, and this book does accomplish that.

This book was a fun and interesting read, not to mention made easy by a journalist's hand rather than that of a PhD.

One thing that it was lacking in was that the memory techniques are more suited for males.....heavy in visual and many with a sexual basis. I understand how visualizing helps, but men and women's brains along with how they process stimuli differ.....men are more visual. I didn't really notice this until towards the end of the book and when the memory palace was being introduced, but it raised awareness of a short-coming. Perhaps it's more of a spark of interest to find more in-depth books on the subject rather than a short-coming, but it still would have been nice for someone to catch that discrepancy so that an honorable mention could have been made, therefore steering the reader in the right direction to gaining more information.

Still, overall it was an interesting read.
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LibraryThing member TigerLMS
Joshua Foer was a journalist covering the national memory championships when he got hooked on the idea of bettering his own memory. His book Moonwalking with Einstein is both a review of memory tricks throughout history and the story of his own efforts to train himself to remember things better-- to the point of entering the memory championships as a competitor. This fascinating, funny, and very informative book isn't designed to be a self-help book that will teach you to remember things better. But you will. The tricks that Foer discusses are easy enough to learn, although most of us won't need to know how to memorize the order of 22 decks of cards. Recommended, even if you aren't looking to improve your memory.… (more)
LibraryThing member EowynA
The author covered the National Memory Championships one year, and ended up winning it the next, so clearly what those Championships measured could be learned. This book is the story of that learning.

the author mentions a few of the techniques he learned, but this is not a book to help the reader learn what he learned. It is a book that puts the use of memory in context, and follows his specific journey.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the insight into the Classical and Medieval mindset that the history of these techniques provides. There are specific historical works dating back to Cicero that show what the ancients did in a world in which books and the written word are relatively rare. For instance, since a "library" might have only a few books, particularly in the early Middle Ages, one would read the same books over and over - the written text being more an aide d'memoire than a new experience. And thus the lack of spaces between words in early texts was no barrier to reading, because the reader already knew what it said.
I plan to look up many of his cited classical and medieval sources to see what they say in their own words. I've never read Cicero, but this prompts me to.

Another technique for remembering has a physical place as the memory-jogger for the stories about that place. This was apparently a technique used by American Indians. So when whole tribes were moved from their ancestral lands, they lived in a new landscape, one without the same memory-jogging features of the old one. And so the stories were lost, because the places they describe were no longer part of their environment.

And, as a consequence of reading this, I have bought a book specifically about memory-enhancing techniques. It remains to be seen how much I get out of the experience. This is a book that gets me excited about reading its sources. This book is one I can recommend.
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LibraryThing member scartertn
Joshua Foer tells a gripping story about his year in pursuit of the perfect memory. The history of memory and the various experts and savants is fascinating. His story also has numerous tricks and tips that are incredibly helpful to those of us that are "memory challenged." I only wish that I had learned of these methods a couple of decades ago.… (more)
LibraryThing member porch_reader
After journalist Josha Foer covered the United States Memory Championship for a magazine story, he became fascinated by the feats of memory and the mental athletes who perform them. He decided to train for the competition himself, and we get to go along for the ride. He shares some of the techniques that memory athletes use, findings from scientific research on memory, and interesting profiles of some of the quirky individuals who compete in memory contests.

This is non-fiction at its best. Foer weaves interesting facts in with the story of his training. I was fascinated to learn about the techniques that memory athletes use to memorize strings of numbers or decks of cards. I may even use some of the techniques myself. Some semesters, I meet 100+ students on the first day of class, and I struggle to remember their names. Foer has convinced me that I can overcome this lack of natural memory. However, even Foer admits that good memory requires concentration and practice. After all of his training, he admits that he took the subway home one night after meeting friends for dinner, completely forgetting that he had driven to the restaurant and left his car in the parking lot.

I also enjoyed Foer's reflection on whether it is worth it to develop memory skills. After all, can't we just store everything we need to know in our smartphones or Google the facts that have slipped our minds? In the end, Foer decides that memory is still an important talent, concluding, "How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. . . Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory."
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LibraryThing member Periodista
A fun, very readable book as long as you aren't expecting to pick up much info that you can apply yourself. Especially impressive when you consider that Foer was such a young, novice writer when starting the book.

I also wanted more brain science--more about these rare people who are brain injured or born with brain abnormalities yet have extraordinary memory talents.I have seen Foer described as a science writer but this book, with its numerous digressions, really is better categorized as a dive into humanities history. What gives this book its shape, maintaining reader interest, is Foer's year-long journey to the memory championships. I can imagine many readers, like me, skipped over some of the history digressions and read about the champion contest at the end.

Foer never promised a self-help book but I still expected to learn a little bit more about, say, how to learn foreign language vocabulary. We learn it's difficult to learn a poem but he never got back to the techniques the memory geeks apply in this area.

That being said, I had read about memory palaces before, notably in Spence's book about the Jesuit missionary in China, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. It's only now that I have a grasp on how the memory palace technique worked. So: Ricci placed Chinese characters in different nooks of his memory palace (though still leaved the question of how he memorized the stroke order of all these characters). I can at least attempt to use the memory exercises to remember names of people at meetings and social occasions. Perhaps even addresses and telephone numbers? All you have to do is associate a color and an image with a number or a pair of numbers ..
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