Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 4


“He is trapped, I realize, in the ultimate existential nightmare, utterly blind to the reality in which he lives.” – Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

After finding some of the top memories in the world, Foer wanted to research some of the worst. In the above quote he speaks of EP, a research subject who due to a bout of herpes simplex lost two chunks of his medial temporal lobes (and most of his memory). EP cannot form new memories–he can hold on to a thought, but as soon as you divert his attention, it’s gone. He also can’t recall old memories, at least not anything since about 1950. EP forgets everything, including the fact that he forgets everything.

It’s interesting that Foer deems this “the ultimate existential nightmare”; I’d argue that for EP it’s more of a dream: a brief, usually pleasant, out-of-context walk through a semi-familiar world. To me, the term nightmare might be reserved for his wife. She seems pleasant enough as Foer describes her, I just can’t imagine having your husband not remember that he has grandchildren or that he already ate breakfast twice. But his daughter says he’s always very happy, presumably because of his lack of stress.

This leads into a discussion on memory and the true value of a life not remembered. Foer cites an experiment where a French chronobiologist went into a cave alone for two months in total isolation. He lost complete track of time and circadian rhythm, and at the end of the two months he only thought he’d been there for one. His days literally blurred into each other. Monotony breeds forgetting, but the “denser the web [of memories], the denser the experience of time” (Foer, 76). As we grow older, we have new experiences less frequently and thus monotony sets in and ‘time flies’. But if we go on vacations and try new new things, we are creating new memories and elongating our perception of our lives.

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.

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”.

Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 1


“Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.” – Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

I bought this book awhile ago. When I decided to move it to the top of the book review pile, it was a largely selfish decision. I’m consistently frustrated with my ability–or lack thereof–to commit things to memory. I have a variety of task-tracking and note-filing methods I employ to attempt to keep myself updated and on track (I’m a bit of an organizational freak; we’re talking color-coded sticky notes and highlighters for designated threat-levels; I am a project manager, after all). But when I have to write down a five-item list for a grocery store run to avoid wandering the aisles stupefied for 30 minutes until inevitably giving up, I think there’s a problem.

But after reading the first chapter (including the quote above), I feel reassured that this book has a place on HWW. Foer introduces the book the way the topic was introduced to him–the subject of an article he wanted to write about for Slate magazine. He stumbles upon the memory circuit and decides to attend the nearby USA Memory Championship.

He meets a few interesting characters, but the first chapter is mostly spent on general information and speculation on the action of memorization: how it is said to have originated, how it has changed after major revolutions like the printing press and the internet, and what these changes might mean for society. When writing about the current media environment, Foer points out that “our culture constantly inundates us with new information, and yet our brains capture so little of it”. One of the champions notes that though people consider memory decline a part of aging, the fact that many people experience this doesn’t mean it is natural. If our brains are Olympians, “we actually do anti-Olympic training.”

Though the champions have slightly different opinions on how to excel, they all agree that they possess average memories–they just focus on training their brains to think in more memorable ways than most people do.

Foer writes that since the invention of the printing press, “internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory.” I wrote about the topic of our brains converting to indices in this post based on a chapter of Carr’s The Shallows.

The chapter ends with a few important questions that I hope Foer will attempt to answer: “…what are the implications for ourselves and our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?”