‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, by Joshua Foer

Do you have a good memory? Have you ever sat at your desk trying to remember your login password? Stood in the corner of a room trying to avoid eye contact with someone whose name you cannot remember. Is it getting better, or worse?

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein

If you are like me, when you hear stories of people who can recall the random order of a deck of playing cards, perform long-division in their head, learn a new language in a week, and recite books of poetry, you cannot help but feel a bit ordinary in the memory department.

The good news is that almost without exception we humans can only hold around 7 random items in our short-term memory – irrespective of our IQ.  How effectively we can move random items to and from our longer-term memory determines our overall memory performance – and it is something we can all radically improve.

This book operates on a couple of levels. The underlying story is about a journalist who reports on the US Memory Championships, and decides to train and compete the following year. The story about his personal training regime provides the arc for a discussion about the historical, sociological and scientific literature on memory. It also serves as testimony to the fact that anyone can radically improve their memory by adopting a few key ancient memory techniques.  I will not spoil the ending for you, but needless to say, he does well the following year.

At one level the author talks about perfecting his memory ‘tricks’ to perform ‘memory athletics’. However, at another level he debates the role and importance of memory in education, and the role of our personal memory in building a connection with society and our culture.

A key question he asks is whether there is any real purpose in us remembering things, or can we ‘externalise’ our personal and collective memories on post-it notes, in books, on computer hard-drives and the web (al la Google)? Does it matter that children no longer learn the historical order of kings and queens, and the names of countries and their capital cities? What is the current purpose of our personal memories – and do we really need them anymore, when 500GB of external memory costs less than $100 and fits in your pocket?

He concludes that we do need to develop and maintain our own personal memories, because our personal knowledge of historical and current facts anchors us in a cultural context. The more we know the more connected we are, and the more vivid our lives. He recounts a visit to a person who suffered a disease that cut off his longer-term memory. Although this person appeared to live happily in the immediate present, he was completely detached from society.

But more importantly for me, our personal knowledge forms the basis of our own innate ability to be creative. ‘Inventory’ and ‘Invention’ share the same Latin root (inventio, meaning ‘to come across’).  Apparently in medieval times these two words were closely linked together, because the ability to invent new ideas was linked to being able to hold a vast amount of existing knowledge in your mind.  The theory goes that you cannot ‘invent’ or innovate until you have an ‘inventory’ of current knowledge to draw upon. This is consistent with modern books about the innovation process that talk about making new connections with existing knowledge, often from different fields.

Computers can store data, and can even store ‘knowledge’ from different fields, but they are yet to demonstrate the ability to synthesize facts into new knowledge, or to innovate. Innovation can only happen in our heads, when we have a personal command of the building blocks. Also, innovation rarely occurs from knowledge within a single domain, but rather when facts and knowledge are drawn upon from disparate disciplines. At its most fundamental level, innovation is little more than creative copying and ‘mash-ups’. (See the great book on this subject, ‘Borrowing Brilliance’ by David Kord Murray, Viking 2009.)

If we outsource our memories to a Google search, how can we hope to be interesting to a dinner companion, observe the unexpected contrasts that lead to a sense of humour, or innovate in our careers or business?

But the rub is that it is actually quite difficult to commit things to memory. It takes ‘deliberate practice’ – the act of understanding, the presence of meaning, and the process of synthesizing the fact already within your existing knowledge base. It is not generally a matter of simply hearing a fact, or reading it. Are you able to remember the first three words of this paragraph…

This book does not really say much that is new. It is a personal journey (or a work of ‘participatory journalism’) written in a very entertaining and accessible style. But it addresses some fundamental issues with significant cultural consequences. It is also an addictive read. I do not read many books in one day, but this was one of them.

And you are going to need to read the book to understand the title…

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a nonfiction book book by Joshua Foer, first published in 2011. The book debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed on the list for 8 weeks.

Andrew Andreyev

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