Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 1

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“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?”

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