Book read: Moonwalking With Einstein

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011)

Joshua Foer reported on the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship for Slate magazine. Intrigued by what he saw, and thinking he would improve his own bad memory, he decided to train for the 2006 championship, which he won. This is not a self-help book but a memoir and investigation into memory, its use and improvement, and the science behind that.

In many ways, we are losing our memories. The invention of writing allowed us to rely less on our memory, and now technology allows us to rely on gadgets to remember for us. How many phone numbers do you remember? Is that larger or smaller than the number of phone numbers in your cellphone? But the techniques used by Foer and other “mental athletes” are all understandable in concept and old in origin. It’s just that we in the past few centuries have gradually and almost entirely abandoned memory training. If we don’t “know” things, that is, if we don’t “remember” things, how can we learn?

This book is also a study in what we can do with discipline and perseverance. In many ways, the chapter I found the most thought-provoking was the tenth, “The Little Rain Man in All of Us.” Foer does meet with Kim Peek, the savant who was the basis for the “Rain Man” character in the film of the same name. Peek does not have a normal brain (he has a damaged  left hemisphere and lacks a corpus callosum), and Foer speculates that all of us have latent abilities in our right-brain that we just can’t usually access.

More interesting is the case of Daniel Tammet, a well-known savant and author. Tammet has been diagnosed with synesthesia so that he perceives numbers as having sensory attributes (e.g. shapes, color, feel). He performs complex multiplication and division mentally and has memorized pi to the 20,000th-odd digit. Yet Foer presents evidence that suggests Tammet is faking his savant-ness and is instead using memory techniques and mental math tricks to demonstrate his acclaimed abilities. Tammet may be a savant or he may be a mnemonist. But he is celebrated for being the former and would be ignored for being the latter. What does that say about memory for us today?

This is an engaging read that I highly recommend.

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