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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (original 2011; edition 2011)

by Joshua Foer

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1,824853,831 (3.84)89
Member:JeffV
Title:Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Authors:Joshua Foer
Info:Penguin Press HC, The (2011), Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Rating:****
Tags:Non-fiction, Self-improvement, memory

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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (2011)

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Showing 1-5 of 83 (next | show all)
Joshua Foer got interested in memory when a chance visit to a museum dedicated to physical strength got him wondering about the mental equivalent, a bit of googling got him to feats of memory, and a comment by a memory champion that anyone can learn the techniques piqued his curiosity. He set out to interview the major players in world memory championships, and with their encouragement decided what better way to understand the process than to enter a competition himself. The US Memory Championship was regarded as within his reach; American “mental athletes” pale in comparison their European counterparts. He recruited a researcher to test his memory baseline (as expected: nothing special) and improvement over time, and went to work.

The fundamental technique is chunking. Instead of trying to remember digits individually, group them into pairs or triplets. Instead of trying to remember meaningless digits, convert them into meaningful items. The Major System associates each digit 0-9 with a consonant, so each pair of digits becomes a word by inserting a vowel between the consonants. The PAO system associates each pair of digits 00-99 with a person performing an action using an object, so each string of six digits combines the person of the first pair, the action of the second pair, the object of the third pair. (This is the origin of moonwalking with Einstein.) Instead of trying to remember an abstract sequence, convert it into tangible locations along a path. This is the gist of the memory palace (which has been around for 2000 years): place attention-grabbing scenarios in a familiar space, and step through it. The scenarios should have associations with multiple senses and emotions: e.g. ugly or beautiful, cacophonous or musical, bitter or sweet, fetid or fragrant, sharp or soft; funny, risque, bizarre. The space can be a building or a landscape, real or imaginary. Creativity helps. Creativity on the fly is difficult, but can be aided by practice with pre-memorized systems.

As you might suppose, people who devote careers to memorization can be a tad eccentric, and a survey of the field, along with the coaching sessions, yields an engaging cast of characters. Practice has its amusing moments, such as what happens when one of the people is your mother, and some of her actions are too disturbing to contemplate. The goal of winning the US Memory Championship keeps the many digressions more or less on track. In the end (not revealing the result of the competition), it turns out that developing skills for a championship doesn’t do much for life in general. While formal test results improved, recall of, say, the content of books did not. Memorization takes conscious effort; it’s not that you train your brain and from then on everything automatically settles into position for later retrieval. But if you have specific situations where the techniques can be usefully applied, apparently there is truth to the claim that anyone can do it.
  qebo | Dec 21, 2014 |
In this fascinating little book (why a 320 page book seems 'little' is another story) Mr. Foer – brother to the recently famous author of a book apparently involving both immediate proximity and copious volume of noise – examines the story behind the 'athletes' of competitive memory championships. In doing so he falls Plimpton-like into the story and ends up himself competing in a U.S. Memory Championship. Along the way he tells us some of the techniques used to achieve some of the more colorful feats required, the background and history of it, and some of interesting personalities that inhabit that world, along with some fascinating insight into the functioning (or indeed malfunctioning) of the human brain. Some may feel that the trope of the Look-What-I-Did-For-A-Year-Then-Wrote-A-Book-About-It has been done to death, and perhaps it has. But rarely has it been done so well, and rarely has it been so well worth your while to read it anyway. Well worth it. ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
In this fascinating little book (why a 320 page book seems 'little' is another story) Mr. Foer – brother to the recently famous author of a book apparently involving both immediate proximity and copious volume of noise – examines the story behind the 'athletes' of competitive memory championships. In doing so he falls Plimpton-like into the story and ends up himself competing in a U.S. Memory Championship. Along the way he tells us some of the techniques used to achieve some of the more colorful feats required, the background and history of it, and some of interesting personalities that inhabit that world, along with some fascinating insight into the functioning (or indeed malfunctioning) of the human brain. Some may feel that the trope of the Look-What-I-Did-For-A-Year-Then-Wrote-A-Book-About-It has been done to death, and perhaps it has. But rarely has it been done so well, and rarely has it been so well worth your while to read it anyway. Well worth it. ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
Yesterday I watched Joshua Foer's TED Talk and I was intrigued enough to read his book in two days (btw, he is the brother of Jonathan Safran Foer).

This is not a self-help book but it is strongly motivating: I've already bought a poetry pocket-book and started to learn poetry by heart applying some techniques learned from the author himself or from various 'mind masters' I encountered in his stories. My old friend from school days - my Memory - is feeling alive and useful again :)
  mariusgm | Sep 12, 2014 |
I became interested in reading this book for two reasons. One is that my younger son, a total non-reader, discovered this book and read it cover-to-cover and then recommended it to me. The second reason was that I saw Joshua Foer speak about this book in person at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. At that time, I was highly amused to learn that the author won the very contest that he was simply researching as a topic of investigative journalism. Foer was also very engaging and entertaining speaker.

I liked that Foer explored all the nooks and crannies of the topic of memory...from the history of memory, to the current practice of memory, to teaching memory techniques, to his personal involvement in a prestigious memory contest. What I've learned mostly from this book is that we've only begun to explore the topic of memory and how it works.

One aspect of this book that I found especially interesting was Foer's questioning of the innate abilities of savant Daniel Tammet, whose memoir Born on a Blue Day described his synesthesia, a condition in which numbers take on a distinctive shape, color, texture, and emotional "tone". I would never have thought to disbelieve in any way Daniel's abilities, but Foer approached this issue from the perspective of a trained mental athlete plus he discovered a part of Daniel in which that savant needed money so was kind of forced to market himself.

For those who enjoy reading nonfiction, this is quite an interesting book with a practical value as well. I've started using some of the memory techniques described in this book, and they really work! ( )
  SqueakyChu | Aug 17, 2014 |
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Joshua Foerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chamberlain, MikeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Christensen, IngeborgTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rahn-Huber, UrsulaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zwart, JannekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Contents:

The smartest man is hard to find -- The man who remembered too much -- The expert expert -- The most forgetful man in the world -- The memory palace -- How to memorize a poem -- The end of remembering -- The ok plateau -- The talented tenth -- The little rain man in all of us -- The US memory championships.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 159420229X, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011: Moonwalking with Einstein follows Joshua Foer's compelling journey as a participant in the U.S. Memory Championship. As a science journalist covering the competition, Foer became captivated by the secrets of the competitors, like how the current world memory champion, Ben Pridmore, could memorize the exact order of 1,528 digits in an hour. He met with individuals whose memories are truly unique—from one man whose memory only extends back to his most recent thought, to another who can memorize complex mathematical formulas without knowing any math. Brains remember visual imagery but have a harder time with other information, like lists, and so with the help of experts, Foer learned how to transform the kinds of memories he forgot into the kind his brain remembered naturally. The techniques he mastered made it easier to remember information, and Foer's story demonstrates that the tricks of the masters are accessible to anyone.
--Miriam Landis

Author Q&A with Joshua Foer

Joshua Foer

Q: First, can you explain the title of you book, Moonwalking with Einstein?

A: The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it's a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it's such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that's pretty much unforgettable.

Q: What are the U.S. Memory Championships? How did you become involved?

A: The U.S. Memory Championship is a rather bizarre contest held each spring in New York City, in which people get together to see who can remember the most names of strangers, the most lines of poetry, the most random digits. I went to the event as a science journalist, to cover what I assumed would be the Super Bowl of savants. But when I talked to the competitors, they told me something really interesting. They weren't savants. And they didn't have photographic memories. Rather, they'd trained their memories using ancient techniques. They said anyone could do it. I was skeptical. Frankly, I didn't believe them. I said, well, if anyone can do it, could you teach me? A guy named Ed Cooke, who has one of the best trained memories in the world, took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about memory techniques. A year later I came back to the contest, this time to try and compete, as a sort of exercise in participatory journalism. I was curious simply to see how well I'd do, but I ended up winning the contest. That really wasn't supposed to happen.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found out about yourself competing in the Memory Championships?

A: In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there's far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I'm not just talking about the fact that it's possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I'm talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it's possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.

Q: Can you explain the "OK Plateau?"

A: The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That's because it's become automatic. You've moved it to the back of your mind's filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it's possible, of course. But you've got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You've got to push yourself past where you're comfortable. You have to watch yourself fail and learn from your mistakes. That's the way to get better at anything. And it's how I improved my memory.

Q: What do you mean by saying there an "art" to memory?

A: The "art of memory" refers to a set of techniques that were invented in ancient Greece. These are the same techniques that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, and that medieval scholars used to memorize entire books. The "art" is in creating imagery in your mind that is so unusual, so colorful, so unlike anything you've ever seen before that it's unlikely to be forgotten. That's why mnemonists like to say that their skills are as much about creativity as memory.

Q: How do you think technology has affected how and what we remember?

A: Once upon a time people invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we've got books, and computers and smart phones to hold our memories for us. We've outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small forgotten thing as evidence that they're failing us altogether. We've forgotten how to remember.

Q: What is the connection between memory and our sense of time?

A: As we get older, life seems to fly by faster and faster. That's because we structure our experience of time around memories. We remember events in relation to other events. But as we get older, and our experiences become less unique, our memories can blend together. If yesterday's lunch is indistinguishable from the one you ate the day before, it'll end up being forgotten. That's why it's so hard to remember meals. In the same way, if you're not doing things that are unique and different and memorable, this year can come to resemble the last, and end up being just as forgettable as yesterday's lunch. That's why it's so important to pack your life with interesting experiences that make your life memorable, and provide a texture to the passage of time.

Q: How is your memory now?

A: Ironically, not much better than when I started this whole journey. The techniques I learned, and used in the memory contest, are great for remembering structured information like shopping lists or phone numbers, but they don't improve any sort of underlying, generalizable memory ability. Unfortunately, I still misplace my car keys.

(Photo of Joshua Foer © Emil Salman Haaretz)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:04 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Having achieved the seemingly unachievable-- becoming a U.S. Memory Champion-- Foer shows how anyone with enough training and determination can achieve mastery of their memory.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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