“Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer

This book was just plain entertaining. Being able to memorize a deck of playing cards, or thousands of numbers of pi is arcane in our world of externalized memory. Other works, namely “The Organized Mind,” preach off-loading memories to external sources to make our lives more efficient. “Moonwalking with Einstein” makes the point that memory was once the best judge of an intellectual’s ability to make connections between the many subjects he or she may be an expert on. I have to agree that our brains do not align with the cataloging system that many of us wish we had in terms of memory. Our brain performs non-linear processing and develops connections using all of our senses. Associating memories with more than one sense enlists these parts of the brain and makes a memory more meaningful. Joshua Foer’s journey through the past and present of memory is cheeky, entertaining, and eye-opening.

  1. Memory training is a form of mental workout. Over time, like any form of exercise, it’ll make the brain fitter, quicker, and more nimble. It’s an idea that dates back to the very origins of memory training. Roman orators argued that the art of memory—the proper retention and ordering of knowledge—was a vital instrument for the invention of new ideas.
  2. Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.
  3. If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. When we die, our memories die with us. In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.
  4. Our ability to process information and make decisions in the world is limited by a fundamental constraint: We can only think about roughly seven things at a time.
  5. “Phonological loop”: which is just a fancy name for the little voice that we can hear inside our head when we talk to ourselves. The phonological loop acts as an echo, producing a short-term memory buffer that can store sounds just a couple of seconds, if we’re not rehearsing them.
  6. Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item. When it comes to chunking—and to our memory more broadly—what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.
  7. What we call expertise is really just “vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.
  8. A meaningful relationship between two people cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.
  9. Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend you life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
  10. Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?
  11. Episodic memories are located in time and space: They have a where and when attached to them. Semantic memories are located outside of time and space, as free-floating pieces of knowledge.
  12. Sigmund Freud first noted the curious fact that older memories are often remembered as if captured by a third person holding a camera, whereas more recent events tend to be remembered in the first person, as if through one’s own eyes. It’s as if things that happened to us become simply things that happened. Or as if, over time, the brain naturally turns episodes into facts.
  13. The average age that people report having their earliest memory is three and a half, and htose tend to be just blurry, fragmentary snapshots that are often false. How strange that during the period when a person is learning more rapidly than at any other point in his life—when one is learning to walk and talk and make sense of the world—so little of that learning is of the kind that is explicitly memorable.
  14. Most of the evolution that shaped the primitive brains of our prehumen ancestors into the linguistic, symbolic, neurotic modern brains that serve us (sometimes poorly) today took place during the Pleistocene, an epoch which began about 1.8 million years ago and only ended ten thousand years ago.
  15. A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. “Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories.”
  16. The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate the imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the “method of loci” by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a “memory palace.”
  17. The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are pretty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.”
  18. Normally memories are stored more or less in random semantic networks, or webs of association. But you have now stored a large number of memories in a very controlled context. Because of the way spatial cognition works, all you have to do is retrace your steps through your memory palace, and hopefully at each point the images you laid down will pop back into your mind as you pass by them. All you’ll have to do is translate those images back into the things you were trying to learn in the first place.
  19. Mere reading is not necessarily learning—a fact that I am personally confronted with every time I try to remember the contents of a book I’ve just put down. To really learn a text, one had to memorize it. As the early eighteenth-century Dutch poet Jan Luyken put it, “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax/ Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”
  20. Memorizing poetry and prose is extraordinarily difficult, the author willingly concedes. But that’s exactly the point. He explains that learning texts is worth doing not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. “I believe that they who wish to do easy things without trouble and toil must previously have been trained in more difficult things,” he writes.
  21. Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestiage from the art of memory.)
  22. One might say that the whole point of our nervous system, from the sensory organs that feed information to the glob of neurons that interprets it, is to develop a sense of what is happening in the present and what will happen in the future, so that we can respond in the best possible way. Strip away the emotions, the philosophizing, the neuroses, and the dreams, and our brains, in the most reductive sense, are fundamentally prediction and planning machines. And to work efficiently, they have to find order in the chaos of possible memories. From the vast amounts of data pouring in through the senses, our brains must quickly sift out which information is likely to have some bearing on the future, attend to that, and ignore the noise. Much of the chaos that our brains filter out is words, because more often than not, the actual language that conveys an idea is just window dressing. What matters is the res, the meaning of those words. And that’s what our brains are good at remembering.
  23. The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized.
  24. The “Major System” invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace.
    1. 0=S 1=T or D 2=N 3=M 4=R 5=L 6=Sh or Ch 7=K or G 8=F or V 9=P or B
  25. Person-Action-Object System: “PAO” system where every two-digit number from 0 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. Any six-digit number can be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object from the third.
  26. There are three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill: During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what’s called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. (See also “Autopilot”, “Work Happy” and learning new skills, and “The Power of Habit”)
  27. Top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. (See “The Power of Habit” and “The Outliers”)
  28. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.
  29. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
  30. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.
  31. Even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can have understanding without facts. (See “One Nation Under Taught” and the importance of balancing facts with critical thinking).
  32. The meaning of “Savant”: Over the last century the word’s meaning has changed. In 1887, John Langdon Down, better known for the chromosomal disorder that bears his name, coined the term “idiot savant.” The word “idiot,” regarded as politically incorrect, eventually fell away. In a world in which our everyday memories have atrophied and we’ve become totally estranged from the idea of a disciplined memory, “savant” has gone from being a term of art and an emblem of intellectual accomplishment to being a freakish condition, a syndrome.
  33. So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our live, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced b an external memory. Not yet, at least. 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. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seta of our values and source of our character.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

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