Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

  • By Joshua Foer
  • Penguin Books
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jud Ashman
  • March 10, 2011

An investigation of recalling it all.

Legend has it that at some point in the fifth century B.C., the Greek poet Simonides was asked to deliver an ode at a banquet. Shortly after his arrival in the banquet hall, a messenger entered and requested the poet’s presence outside ―  someone needed to speak with him. Simonides obliged, and at the moment he exited the building the roof collapsed, killing everyone inside.

As you might expect, the means for identifying remains in early Greece was less like CSI and more like a scavenger hunt. As the search commenced, Simonides was asked to help account for those buried in the debris. Concentrating, he closed his eyes and envisioned the layout of the room. And then something amazing happened: despite having made no effort to memorize the room or the guests, Simonides was able to recall them.

So begins Joshua Foer’s remarkable debut, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which provides a broad and entertaining exploration of the workings and limits of human memory. Foer, the youngest sibling in a family of  accomplished authors, distinguishes himself with a style that combines the first-person journalism of George Plimpton and the erudite, pop-psych trips-through-the-gray-matter of Malcolm Gladwell.

The author’s journey begins as a flight of fancy: a random quest to find the “world’s smartest person.” This turns out to be a difficult endeavor, given that there are no perfect or quantifiable measures of intelligence ― at least that everyone can agree on. (Do you compare IQ scores? Math computational skills?)  In the course of Internet searches, however, Foer comes across the story of a man who can perform incredible feats of recall ― such as memorizing more than 1,500 random digits in an hour, or the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 32 seconds ― and carries the title of world memory champion. Surely, the author speculates, such a display could only be evidence of some kind of “freakish genius,” right?

Foer decides to investigate. His line of inquiry leads him to the obscure subculture of “mental athletes,” who train and compete in national and international contests featuring extreme memory challenges. As individuals, these mental athletes tend to be driven, focused young men, albeit unpredictable in both style and hygiene. Surprisingly, however, what they can do is not out of the ordinary; in fact, they repeatedly insist that “anyone could do it.” To prove it, they offer to train the author as a mental athlete in his own right. Foer gamely takes the challenge, and a large part of Moonwalking is dedicated to chronicling his remarkable adventure ― all the way to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.

The Simonides episode, whether accurate or mythological, is thought to mark the discovery of a mnemonic device, later named “the Memory Palace,” that people have utilized for more than 2,000 years to remember everything from Cicero’s orations to thousands of digits of pi to multiple decks of playing cards to, naturally, the phone numbers of fair barmaids everywhere. As Foer trains his own memory, he learns this ancient technique, remembering concepts by visualizing them as interesting (sometimes quite “Freudian”) objects in familiar locations.

Foer traces a general history of how humankind has used memory. In the ancient world, memory training was an important facet of quality education, and the main vehicle for preserving the collective knowledge and moral traditions of humanity. Indeed, writing, as the externalization of memory, was at one point viewed by some as a threat to civilization.

Foer cites Socrates, who, in a notable parable, regretted this about people: “[They] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks … a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom … but only its semblance, for telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men.”

A couple of millennia later, when Gutenberg’s printing press turned books into household commodities, serious memory training was essentially rendered a curious relic. And flash forward to today, where collective memory has been externalized in countless contraptions ― from cell phones, to Web sites, to GPS devices, to thermostats, to IBM’s Watson. When we dump our data into all of these receptacles, what does it mean for our own internal capacity to synthesize facts into knowledge? Is it sufficient to organize our facts and ideas in a sort of “internal index,” where we know how to find things but we don’t store the details? And if our lives, at any point, exist mostly in our memories, are we “living less” by remembering less?

While Foer ultimately fails to find the “world’s smartest person,” he succeeds in a much more important sense. He reminds us of our own capacity to remember, probing what our memories mean for the quality of our lives, and how they relate, in the end, to what we all seek: wisdom.

Jud Ashman is the founder and chair of the DC area’s Gaithersburg Book Festival, which this year will be held on May 21 and will feature more than 50 authors, including many major award winners. 

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