Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Have you thought about something, turned your head and SNAP, your mind just goes blank at the next instant. If this sounds familiar to you, then “Moonwalking with Einstein” will bring you new insights about your internal memory.

Written by science and tech journalist Joshua Foer, this book extensively discusses about the art and science of remembering.

Warning: This is not a self-help book and will not instruct you to improve your memory. Rather, this book should be treated as an intriguing piece of investigative journalistic work, where history, research, interviews and Foer’s personal experiences get mashed up in its narrative.

Initially assigned to cover memory competitions, Foer grew increasingly fascinated after hearing repeatedly from numerous memory champions that anyone could boost their memory.

“It’s all about technique and understanding how the memory works,” Ben Pridmore, a World Memory Champion said in a newspaper interview. “Anyone could do it, really.”

Such bold claims not only kick-start Foer’s journey into memory sports but also got me suckered into the finishing the book.

Alright, I admit to relying heavily on my electronic devices as an external memory to remind me about the “nitty-gritty details” in my daily life. I need my iPhone to store all my contacts because I can barely recall beyond five telephone numbers, Facebook to remind me about my friends’ birthdays and my camera to record visual copies of my holiday trips.

“As more and more of our lives move online, more and more is being captured and preserved in ways that are dramatically changing the relationship between our internal and external memories,” Foer wrote.

This book strongly juxtaposes against our modern behavior, advocating for us to rely on our notoriously unreliable internal memory.

Foer proves this point by using his own brains as an experiment and also training grounds to gear up for the 2006 U.S. Memory Competition in under a year’s time and he was dead-pan serious about what he did.

Foer with his earphones and black goggles to help him concentrate
Picture a grown-up man wearing industrial-grade earmuffs and black safety goggles with two small eyeholes, hunching and staring intensely at pages of random numbers in the basement of a house. Reading about his trainings were at times laughable but his spirit is definitely admirable.

Yet his seriousness did prove one thing in the end – our memories are improvable.

“The goal of training one’s memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas,” Foer wrote.

One of the many tricks mentioned to boost your memory is to develop the capacity to quickly create multisensory images that will link disparate ideas. In fact, conjuring dirty images or funny jokes will better lock the memory as compared to sheer rote memorization.

And amongst the memorization techniques mentioned, I was surprised to find out that I have been taught in elementary school one of them. The image below is an example of it: Mind mapping is a memory technique commonly linked with mnemonist Tony Buzan to create various associative hooks to help sink in images of a particular concept.

Towards the end of the book, Foer concludes in a very simple manner,

“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.”

As true as his words are, as I finish up the last words of the book, I realized I have already forgotten the earlier contents that I have read.

Time to work on my memory.

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91 thoughts on “Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

  1. You are so cool! I do not believe I have read through anything like this before. So good to find another person with original thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

    1. Thanks for sharing the link! It surely is quite disturbing to be reading about Dom DeLuise hocking a fat globule of spittle on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane but yes, that’s the kind of image that Foer wants us to conjure!

  2. I wonder if memory has any bearing on focus. My memory is bad but my focus worries me more. I can’t sit still or finish one project at a time to save my life. I wonder if forcing your memory to work at peak, you’ll improve focus overall. I would guess a good test might be to see if I can finish this book!!

  3. Sounds like a brilliant book, something that captures my interest both as a reader of books about neurology (among other things) and as a teacher who is deeply concerned about matters of memory in the coming generations. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. The problem with us is we don’t exert effort anymore in memorizing since there are devices that can memorize for us. And I am guilty of this.

    On second thought, erase “the problem with us” because it’s not that bad. We just have to learn which we *should* store in our brain and which can be just saved somewhere.

    Pensieve, anyone?

  5. You have peaked my interest as well. This may come in handy for my thesis in music theory which I am working on right now. I also am combining ideas from one area of thinking to another totally different area, that being music theory and psychoanalysis. The mind map you gave also reminds me of a musicology dissertation I looked at before; I’ll have to take another look at it now.

  6. Oh, hold on…. what is it that I’m doing here again?
    Ah year… memory… well if you find it in the book before me, could you please return it to my head! Hold on… where’s my head gone now?
    lol

    Thanks for that insight, It seems I need it badly!

    Thanks for sharing

  7. I find this extremely interesting. I remember seeing that name before, so I Googled Foer to find that he was on the Colbert Report. It was fantastic to see all the making-fun paus as he awed the camera and audiences with his insight (and his skill). I’ll have to find the time to read this.

    I recently read a similar book, This Is Your Brain On Music, that described the neuroscience of music and its effect on the human mind. I liked it because it made it clear that something as simple as music can very subtly affect one’s behavior. If you haven’t read it already, I suggest you check it out.

  8. This book sounds fascinating – I have a terrible memory when it comes to something I’ve just been thinking about. Crazy.

  9. Very interesting review and book! As you’ve quite rightly pointed out, I think that the modern world has made us all very lazy – whether we like it or not – and it becomes harder to exercise our memory skills in our everyday life, because of all the storage methods we can use to record information.

    As a future barrister, I am constantly struggling to improve my memory and I am gradually learning to make a speech or conduct witness examination without reading my notes and learning to combine my understanding of the case with the information received on the spot. It is extremely hard, challenging but great fun. I am trying different methods to improve my memory and the one that usually works best for me is simply making a great effort to really understand a situation and a topic beforhand, then note down bullet points and/or concept maps. In my experience, concentration and focus when receiving the information is the most important aspect in the process of memorising it.

    Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed. Hope to see you on my blog soon!
    http://littleexplorer.wordpress.com

  10. This is so so cool, it reminds me of when I was studying latin and we learnt about the druids not committing anything, unless it was essential, to writing. This was to improve their memory and to avoid reliance on documents.

  11. Very interesting! By the way we all have amazing memories and our memories really are not the problem, but recalling is our problem. I have a photographic memory, and sometimes I think I remember too much!

    It did come in quite handy in college, because it made every test an open book, because I put it all to memory. I believe memory or recall whichever you want to call it is like reading faster, my family can not believe how fast I will scan down a page of information and find the information that they have spent great deals of time trying to find. I do the same when recalling information. I simply see the image or the situation from which the information came from. Then I replay it in my mind. Only once in a while when I really am not paying attention to what is going on around me do I not store the information and that is when I set something down like my keys, and didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. Really what you focus on is what you will find in your memory or when you are scanning a page of information. Ask me to find the errors in your writing, and I will only focus on errors, and bring forth only errors. Nothing else one the page will even stand out to me or be registered. Ask me a question and my focus is now the answer, and I will pull it forth from my memory. That is why the industrial headphones, and black sunglasses work with the numbers because it brings your focus into just the numbers you want to remember.

    Oh, sorry I guess I got on my soapbox! I have studied the mind intensively and find it fascinating. By the way I am always curious as to why Tony Buzan is associated with Mind Mapping? 25 some odd years ago I learned the technique of mind mapping, and at that time it was simply called the Cornell University Note System. I was told that it was developed by Cornell University, and few people had heard of it. I have tried to research how Tony Buzan came to be the creator of it, but have not yet found the information, as I did not spend a great deal of time on it. It is a great way to take notes also for a class and put things to memory for the class.

    Peace and Harmony,
    Sallyjane Woods

    Do you love to write? We are having a Murder Mystery contest on our blog, and the books proceeds will be given to charity. Contestants write the chapters, and readers vote. Come join in the fun! http://www.the777man.com
    Also come to the777man.wordpress.com

    1. Sallyjane, I have developed precisely your same ability to ‘scan read’ a text through my academic studies. However, I am not sure that it is the same process as memorising.I would rather call it analytical skill of absorbing and dissecting large amounts of information, for a specific purpose (e.g. identifying errors). I do find it fascinating to see how that allows me to speed-read huge amounts of reading, however it is true that my mind is only capable of selecting some information and sometimes I might miss out some key passages!

  12. I just finished this book the other day and I have to day I loved it. What I thought was just going to be a fun read turned out to be one of the best non fiction books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to learn how much Mark Twain bought into the idea.

    Great job on your part, very good read. The gentleman who wrote this book also co-founded a travel/culture site called http://www.atlasobscura.com. I discovered both his book and his site separate from one another. Imagine the pleasant surprise I had finding that out.

    Thanks again for the great read.

    1. Thanks for the great link! I’m certainly surprised to see Foer listed as the co-founder of an entirely unrelated travel site.

      Glad to have you stop by and hope you’ve enjoyed the read (:

  13. Great review! I’ve been reading it on my Kindle and I still remember his to-do list just from his memory palace, so maybe it’s been working! Then again, if it weren’t for my Kindle, I wouldn’t even remember which page I was on.

    1. While writing up this post, I had to constantly refer back to the notes I’ve dropped as I read through, which goes back to the depressing point that perhaps, the more we read, the more we forget.

      Yet surprisingly the image of Claudia Schiffer swimming in the tub of cottage cheese from his to-do list is still stuck in my mind. So I concur with your opinion and do think our brains are honestly quite amazing!

  14. I read this book last month and was immediately drawn in by the author’s conversational tone. It was interesting, informative, and very enjoyable. It certainly challenged several of the things I had learned about memory and how we store information.

    Incidentally, I still can’t get Claudia Schiffer and cottage cheese out of my head 🙂

    1. Now that you remind me, the smell of the smoked salmon and six dangling wine bottles are still sitting in my house!
      (For those who have yet read the book, the items mentioned are part of a list that Foer uses to illustrate his memory technique)

  15. As others have said, this sounds like an interesting read. I’m pretty sure I recall seeing Joshua Foer on the Colbert Report some time ago (according to Google he was on in March 2011). His interview was insightful and entertaining, but unfortunately I forgot the name of the book then. Now that I know what the name of the book is, I definitely want to read it.

  16. I learned in a Dale Carnegie seminar once to associate peoples names with the people you already new of the same name. Name buckets.
    Also to associcate important data with nonsensical, funny (and yes even naughty) images to remeber them by.
    I do not remember everything, but neither do chidren. They’re not worried about what they do not remember. They simply move along. Adult Humans put too much emphasis on memory, not that honing it is bad. Any exercise that grows the brain is good, the worrying over “lost” memory is the challenge/bad part.
    A wonderful choice for Freshly Pressed! I love Einstein so much. He is a Being of imagination!

  17. Because information are always at the the tips of our fingers, we tend to forget that our brains are more powerful than our mobile phones. I’d love to read this one.

  18. Sounds like a great book. I love mind maps. I use them for all kinds of stuff and I find myself doodling one whenever I’m thinking about stuff I have to do that day and happen to have a pen and paper in front of me. And I use the mental map I have of my local supermarket to mentally list everything I have to get in the order I reach it in the aisles; works a treat every time!

  19. Sounds like a fascinating read! The brain and memory and all that stuff has always interested me (maybe because I’ve been told quite often that I have such a “great” memory). I will definitely check this out. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Thank you for sharing! I’m one of those people whose memory is not the best except for memorizing students’ names when I substitute teach. I liked your last two lines, especially.

  21. as a young writer in my age (11 years old you got to believe me! i swear to god!) i like it when i read books that inspire me such as this one, by the way my name is Einsteine Veliyanka see the Einstein part? my dad gave that name to me and i have wrote about two books but they aren’t published yet well i love to see other people that actually have interest in books my friends dont even know the word…….. well thanks for sharing this!

  22. Sounds like an interesting book, I’ll be sure to check it out. My memory isn’t what it could be, so any ideas I can pick up from it would be helpful. Really nice review, thank you.

  23. I came across this book last summer, and as a brain trainer, writer, and teacher, found the book to be well done on all accounts. The memory tricks Foer practices in the book take some time and patience and diligence, but are not impossible.

    The real question comes at the end of the book, where Foer wonders how memory tricks translate into real life. My memory rocks and yet I forgot an entire load of laundry at the laundromat and didn’t realize it until 2 days later. I was lucky it was still there.

    1. Indeed it is quite fascinating that our brains seem to memorize only certain information such as a random string of numbers but not remember important phone numbers.

      I’m currently trying to use some of Foer’s methods to learn a new language, which is a little tedious but I must say is quite effective in making the new words stick well in my mind.

  24. I tend to do like Einstein once said and not remember anything I can look up 🙂

    I enjoyed your review and just might have to take a look at the book.

    ~

  25. I’ve heard about this before. I guess our memories need exercising like anything else. And of course, there is the interest factor to factor in. When something is fascinating to me, I remember it. If I don’t like it, I forget it. Then again, there is the expression: use it or lose it. I used to speak fluent Spanish, then I moved and didn’t use it. Then I forgot it and had to relearn it. And this has happened to me several times. So I guess it all depends on what we have to keep in our heads and what we deem unimportant.

    val

    http://valentinedefrancis.wordpress.com

    1. As Foer wrote, “The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember.”

      So somehow, our capacity to memorize is a loop that feeds upon itself just as the saying goes what goes around comes around. This goes the same with languages. I found the foreign languages that I can speak best are the ones that I spent time practicing over and over again. Guess memory and practice goes hand in hand!

      Thanks for stopping by and your lovely comment (:

    1. Indeed, ever since I heard that my mind might have limited
      capacity – I made a point to only remember the things I really
      wanted in there. Numbers and adresses are just an outside
      annoyance – the real world simply does not take presidence
      over my internal universe generator. It’s interesting but – god
      can have it. My philosphies are very different then his . . . 😉

    1. I think you’ll really like the manner in which difficult science concepts have been tackled by the author in this book. Thanks for stopping by!

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