Book review: Moonwalking with Einstein

by on May 1, 2011


I just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. I first heard about the book on the Colbert Report and it turned out to be a fascinating read. The book is a autobiography about a journalist who covers a memory competition. He is intrigued by the memory athletes in the competition and decides to learn more. Foer ends up embarking on a year-long study of memory techniques before competing himself and landing the title of US Memory Champion.

The memory athletes perform seemingly incredible feats like memorizing an entire deck of cards in 30 seconds or reciting back thousands of random digits in under an hour. The amazing thing is that these memory athletes are just ordinary people with average memories. They’ve just learned how to train their minds and have learned old tricks for effectively remembering things.

The basic premise of most of the memory techniques is that our memories are incredible visual and spacial. For example, picture the home you grew up in. You may not have seen it in years, but I bet you can still walk around that building in your mind and recall the layout with incredible detail. Our minds are also really good at remembering things that are out of the ordinary, sexual or absurd. By drawing connections in your mind and laying scenes around “memory palaces” you can transform the kinds of things you usually forget into the kind your brain is naturally good at remembering.

Foer also talks a lot about the history of memorization. Memory skills used to be considered a lot more important than they are today. He talks with natural savants and the worlds smartest trained minds. He discusses the process of becoming an expert and how to stop yourself from plateauing in your quest for mastery. I was fascinated by the techniques he used and challenged to simply pay more attention and be more intentional about the things that I want to remember.

One of the key take-aways for me is that anyone could become an expert, but it takes time and commitment. Foer had to do a massive amount of brute force memorization to build up a dictionary of shortcuts in his mind before he could memorize anything fast. He points out that invention and inventory come from the same root word. Invention can’t come without having an inventory of experiences and knowledge to build on. It’s all very recursive.

No matter how good your memory is now, I think you’ll enjoy Moonwalking with Einstein. If you’re looking for a good book, check it out. It’s an interesting look into the internal workings of our minds.