Moonwalking with Einstein, book cover

The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Joshua Foer challenged himself to develop his memory skills to a level where he could realistically compete in the USA Memory Championship. In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the science and nature of memory as he chronicles his preparation for top level memory competition.

Understanding and Improving Memory

Foer explains the nature of memory, its importance to us in defining our personality and its limits in everyday use. He explores the techniques used by memory masters and competitors in memory challenges. The basic techniques are easy to learn; I can still remember the to-do list from many weeks  ago that I memorised using a technique Foer introduces early in the book. It is the well-known method of placing a multisensory image associated with each item, hence the book's title,  to be remembered in a location on a familiar journey; with a little discipline it is easily learned and put into practice.

In Moonwalking with Einstein Foer takes the reader easily between exploring the science of memory and chronicling Foer’s preparation for the memory competition.  Along the way he meets many colourful, sometimes strange characters, who inhabit the memory games world and help him with his preparation. Joshua Foer weaves it all into an engaging story combining science, people, memory techniques and even humour.

What comes over very clearly is how the competitions and the techniques used to achieve staggering feats of memory are so detached from everyday use of memory. Just like the rest of us and despite his skills, Foer loses his car keys and even forgets where he has parked his car. The techniques require specific focus on memorising particular things; in normal life we just do things and then try to recall what we did. The memory techniques do not work for the casual need to recall events or facts; they require specific effort and practice.

Joshua Foer explores how technology and even the invention of writing make the need for memory less important; books, computers can remember and recall far more than most us ever need. However he does make important points around creativity, scholarship and having a wide range of knowledge in one’s head. The subconscious mind is very good at making connections and structuring knowledge to solve problems but it needs the raw material; hence the traditional need to be “well read”.  Many of the memory techniques are developments of the methods used by scholars from classical times almost to the arrival of the personal computer and the Internet in modern times.

Despite the skills he developed Foer no longer uses them routinely. Like the rest of us he writes down his to-do and shopping lists and saves telephone numbers on his mobile phone or computer. It is just more convenient.

Fascinating Story and Enjoyable Read

With Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer has produced a fascinating insight into memory and how memory masters perform their impressive performances. He has an easy style which makes it an enjoyable read; at times it is even funny. Yet it also covers the history of memory methods and the science with a light touch that is readable without being superficial. His explanations of memory techniques are clear and straightforward so anyone, with a bit of application, will be able to use the same approach. It is also a captivating story as it is populated with intriguing characters; Foer draws a better picture of them than most novelists.

After just a year of practice the outcome of his entry into the world of memory games is surprising but to find out what happens you will have to read Moonwalking with Einstein. The title by the way comes from the images Foer uses for achieving his remarkable feats of memory.

Moonwalking with Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (ISBN:978-0-141-03213-9 , 2011) by Joshua Foer  is published in paperback by Penguin at £9.99

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