Q & A with Joshua Foer on Moonwalking With Einstein
- May 17, 2011
The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Have you ever heard of Phoenix Rising? It’s a kind of therapy that believes memory lies in the joints. The therapy consists of having the therapist place you in all sorts of different positions. They arch your back, squeeze your arms together, toss you and turn you. I approached the entire thing with the utmost skepticism and then the therapist put me in a “wheelbarrow.” I couldn’t stop laughing because it brought back a childhood game that my siblings and I invented and played. One more twist, and I had the most vivid memory ever of my grandmother’s kitchen. What do you think? Can memory reside in/on the body but outside the brain?
I haven’t heard of Phoenix Rising, but yes, there is such a thing as kinesthetic memory. Those memories still reside in the brain, however. But memory is not some single, monolithic thing. There are different kinds of memories, and they’re stored differently in the brain. You can lose one type of memory, and still retain others.
I built a memory palace. Thank you for teaching me. It takes an enormous effort and I suspect most of us would be too lazy to keep erecting palaces. Trouble is now, what to put in the palace I’ve created? What is truly worth remembering?
How about stocking a palace with some good poetry? Auden maybe?
I noticed you didn’t write about scents. Scents are crucial to certain memories. I’ve read that scents help when trying to remember. Did any of the mental athletes work with scents?
Yes, scents can be amazing memories cues. The olfactory bulb is closely linked with regions of the brain involved in memory. Mental athletes try to engage as many senses as possible when remembering. That’s the entire art of the contest. When trying to make something memorable, they will not only conjure up an image in their mind’s eye, but hear it, smell it, even taste it. The more senses you can engage in remembering a piece of information, the more memorable it will be.
These days, we don’t have to remember much. Type one letter and the email address arrives, text one letter and the phone guesses what you meant. After our machines become more us than we are, what do we do with all the new freedom?
Is that freedom or slavery? I’m not sure. I’m not sure our machines will ever be able to piece together two ideas that didn’t previously go together, or be truly creative. I suspect it will be a long, long time before computers can ever truly think.
I’m guessing that evolution might be a cyclical process. So what would humans be without their memory? Homo sapiens, sapiens?
I spent time with an amnesic who had probably the worst memory in the world. He could only remember his most recent thought. He was surprisingly content. But his life was empty.
Is there a household ingredient for talent that all three of the writing Foer brothers claim? One that wholeheartedly contributed to each of you becoming a writer?
I think it’s a fluke that we all became writers. A weird one, I admit.
How are you alike? How are you and your brothers distinguishable?
Well, they’re both on the highway to baldness. I, for now, am holding the line.