Moonwalking With Einstein is about a journalist who covers the U.S. Memory Championship (yes, there is such a thing) for a story he is writing.  The journalist – Joshua Foer – becomes drawn into the art of memorization and how the mind works and he ends up competing in the same event a year later.  A movie is now in the works.  He writes about his research into memory techniques, especially those associated with the ancient Greeks, and how many of the competitors in the world event are not simply brilliant people, as you might at first suspect.  Rather, they are committed to memory techniques that have only recently been reclaims from several thousand years ago.  He also peppers this account with anecdotes regarding the science of the brain, memory savants, and diseases that affect the mind.

Thus, this book is much more than a simple “how-to” manual on memorization.  It explores the subject from many different angles, including Foer’s own experience expanding his ability to capture and store information.  I enjoyed this book for a couple of different reasons.

  • I have never been that strong in committing ideas to memory and retaining them for any length of time (usually long enough to pass a test).  I always wished that I could read a book about, say, the Roman emperors and then be able to commit a timeline of names and dates to memory for future reference.  By using some of these age-old techniques, I am finally understanding that this is possible.  By placing names, dates, and events to a “memory palace” in my mind, I have been able to retain far more information that I have previously experienced.  My evening walk with the dog has become a walk through 500 years of Roman emperors.  My bike ride to work has become a ride through the kings of Israel and Judah.  As odd as all this may sound, I have been both surprised and pleased with my improved retention.
  • You have probably heard of oral tradition, as opposed to written tradition.  Oral tradition is how ancient cultures could pass down a story for hundreds of years and yet retain the integrity of the original story.  It is how myths were circulated and passed on for generations before they were ever written down.  It is how Jewish rabbis could recite the Torah from memory.  A better understanding of these memory techniques lends credence to the ancients ability to accomplish such feats of the mind.
  • Finally, with all the wonderful technology we now surround ourselves with, we must be cognizant of the consequences of – as the author puts it – downloading so much of our information on to external devices, rather than using our own minds as storage devices.  It is one of the paradoxes of our modern world that we have access to more information today than all of previous history combined.  Yet can we say that we are becoming wiser, more disciplined people because of it?  Are we allowing all this information to shape us into becoming better human beings?

It was an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Hopefully a month from now, I can remember it!