Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 3


“… A great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise; it’s the essence of expertise.” – Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

At Florida State University, K. Anders Ericsson and the Human Performance Lab (does that kinda sounds like a band name?) are focused on deciphering what makes an expert and expert. Or to put it more eloquently, “to isolate the thing we call expertise, so that we can dissect it and identify its cognitive basis” (Foer, 55). Foer goes to the institute to undergo a pre-evaluation before attempting to become a memory champ, and Ericsson and team are excited at the prospect of studying a pre-expert.

Foer learns that most people can only think about 7 things at a time, and that the little voice in our head we sometimes use to remember things is called a “phonological loop”. I use that little voice frequently…most often, it seems, when I’ve left something off my grocery list and I’m already at the store. *laundry detergent, laundry detergent, laundry detergent*

We also learn about chunking–a key factor in memorizing, which we do all the time (think of phone numbers). But our ability to learn is largely based on what we already know. For example, memorizing Dante’s Divine Comedy might be “easy” (ha!) for me in English, but virtually impossible for me in Italian (because I don’t know the language).

Facts and information without meaningful context aren’t very relevant (and thus not very memorable).

I think I’ll use that as appropriate justification for my addiction to reading and school…

I also think this is why school courses tend to place so much emphasis on real-world application of concepts (e.g. word problems: my old friends!). As we learn in the next chapter (yes…I  was reading ahead) the more abstract a concept, the harder it is to commit to memory.

When thinking of powerful memories, the image that immediately came to mind was the character Lincoln Rhyme from the The Bone Collector (played by Denzel Washington in the movie). He was incredibly smart and had a weirdly large knowledge base that ends up cracking the case. In one scene they piece together paper shreds to form a logo. Rhyme thinks and thinks and “AH!–I’ve seen that logo! A turn-of-the-century publisher!” And so on. Anyway, my point is that he seemed to have learned a lot about a lot in case he might need it some day. This doesn’t really relate to my previous point, but hey–he’s a great (fictional) memorizer. Seems like permissible evidence to me.