Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 2


“Perhaps, as Borges concludes in his story, it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. To make sense of the world, we must filter it. ‘To think,’ Borges writes, ‘is to forget.'” – Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Even though this chapter was lengthy, I don’t have a ton to share. Much of the chapter focuses on a specific and important test subject S. For thirty years, neuropsychologist A. R. Luria studied S and his incredible memory–he basically never forgot anything. From numerals to nonsense, the man could memorize everything. I’ll save the particulars for you to read; S explains how he does what he does, and it’s fascinating.

Unlike S, the rest of us are subject to “the curve of forgetting,” which was graphed by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Basically, the more time between us and the learning, the less we remember (though after a certain amount of time the forgetting plateaus). This could be one (the only?) reason why that show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? managed to work…

I digress.

One fact I found very interesting is that photographic memory is not, apparently, a thing. It has never been proven (except in one shady one-woman study ran by her lover), but what has been show to make memories stick (for normal people, S, and mental athletes alike) are associations. Foer references the Baker/baker paradox: if two people are shown the same picture but one is told the man is a baker and the other is told the man’s name is Baker, the former subject is much more likely to remember him. It’s because we make associations with the noun and everything we know about baking. But when you meet a person, and their face is the only thing that links to their name, it’s harder to recall later.

My last fun fact: If you’re a cabbie in London, you probably have an enlarged right posterior hippocampus to accommodate the crazy spatial navigation of the job. Carr also referenced this study in his book and I mentioned it in my post. These individuals jump through many hoops and only a select few become drivers. But the hours of studying and training pay off, and the longer they’re on the job, the “more pronounced the effect”.