Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer follows a similar structure to Born to Run. It’s a first-hand account of an oddball subculture who practices taking a weird skill to the extremes. In this case, that weird skill is around memory. The book is an entertaining read, and caused me to re-think what it means to ‘remember’ something.

The memory competition - the book starts with the author talking about entering the national memory competition. Apparently it's a fairly niche field where entrants memorize everything from sequences of cards to words to poetry that they list forwards and backwards. Paul Foer intends to enter this competition, and work with a colorful band of characters to build his memory habit.

The memory palace of Simonides - one technique for memory is to create ties to place things in context. Apparently this was the early basis for memory, created from a story about Simonides. Simonides was a poet, who walked outside a banquet hall just before the entire roof collapsed. He was able to point the rushing villagers to the exact locations where their deceased loved ones had been sitting. Apparently a well-known technique is to create a memory palace from a place you know well, and then tie new information back to it.

S, the russian newspaper reporter - there's a story about a Russian newspaper reporter who has "picture perfect" memory. (turns out he's the same one mentioned in Augmenting Long-term Memory). He is able to remember everything discussed during a meeting and repeat it back word-for-word. It turns out that he has a particularly acute case of synesthesia, where he remembers each word with vivid associations around it. Even digits have associations: 1 is a proud man, 2 is a dignified woman, 7 is a mustachioed guy, etc. S places these people along other contexts that he knows incredibly well, like his regular morning walk. Occasionally he'll miss items which "blend in" with his walk, like an egg which he placed against a white wall.

Chicken Sexing - I did not know this, but the ability to reveal a chicken's sex early in life is an incredibly valuable, but hard-to-teach skill. If you know a chicken's sex, a hatchery can decide to immediately kill male chicks, and keep alive the female ones to reduce cost (this process is what brought down the price of eggs substantially in the 50s and 60s). Without prior experience, it's hard to tell which chicks are male and which are female until they grow to be about 6-weeks old. Instead, chicken sexers have found trace elements in the chicken's anal vent that properly allow them to determine the sex. The weird part is that this is mostly based on pattern recognition, and it's often impossible for the worker to describe what clues gave them that idea in the first place.

Chess, and memory in context - similar to the examples discussed in Range, chess players are able to rapidly identify chessboard configurations that they've seen before (and that could potentially arise.) They can tie all configurations of the board together in context, and there's evidence that this is the thing that makes them more effective.

Locations and memory - there's a pretty interesting idea tying evolution to memory. Early man didn't need to remember the names of different people at a cocktail party... instead we needed to remember places. It was all about different areas that were dangerous, ones that led to food, and re-tracing the steps to shelter. It then makes sense that we have a much stronger association with places and contexts than we do with words, numbers, or sequences. It also explains why I have a much better memory recall for audiobooks on long runs than I do anywhere else!

The Memory Palace - we can take advantage of the fact that we remember places so well to create our own "memory palaces". These should ideally take a place you know very well (say your own childhood home), and then involve placing extremely vivid images in them. The more lewd or humorous or remarkable they are, the better we'll remember them. It helps to personify various inanimate objects, to include stuff that would be absurd. The author uses the example of 'imagine Claudia Schiffer bathing in cream cheese' or 'imagine these wine bottles talking to one another and discussing their relative merits'. It is the ordinary that we do not remember.

Overall, I find the book most interesting in demonstrating the power of what one’s memory might achieve, given some more deliberate practice. But most of the applications for memory (ordering cards, matching names and faces, reciting poetry) don’t really interest me, and seem like more tricks.