Moonwalking With Einstein | Notes & Review

Posted on August 1, 2013


Joshua Foer. Moonwalking WIth Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. The Penguin Press, 2011. (307 pages)


There were no other survivors.

Family members at the scene of the fifth-century-B.C. banquet hall catastrophe pawed at the debris for signs of their loved ones — rings, sandals, anything that would allow them to identify their kin for proper burial.

Minutes earlier, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos had stood to deliver an ode in celebration of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman. As Simonides sat down, a messenger tapped him on the shoulder. Two young men on horseback were waiting outside, anxious to tell him something. He stood up again and walked out the door. At the very moment he crossed the threshold, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed in a thundering plume of marble shard and dust.

He stood now before a landscape of rubble and entombed bodies. The air, which had been filled with boisterous laughter moments before, was smokey and silent. Teams of rescuers set to work frantically digging through the collapsed building. The corpses they pulled out of the wreckage were mangled beyond recognition. No one could even say for sure who had been inside. One tragedy compounded another.

Then something remarkable happened that would change forever how people thought about their memories. Simonides sealed his senses to the chaos around him and reversed time in his mind. The piles of marble returned to the pillars and the scattered frieze fragments reassembled in the air above. The stoneware scattered in the debris re-formed into bowls. The splinters of wood poking above the ruins once again became a table. Simonides caught a glimpse of each of the banquet guests at his seat, carrying on oblivious to the impending catastrophe. He saw Scopas laughing at the head of the table, a fellow poet sitting across from him sponging up the remnants of his meal with a piece of bread, a nobleman smirking. He turned to the window and saw the messengers approaching, as if with some important news.

Simonides opened his eyes. He took each of the hysterical relatives by the hand and, carefully stepping over the debris, guided them, one by one, to the spots int he rubble where their loved ones had been sitting.

At that moment, according to legend, the art of memory was born.


…the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten. (6)

The techniques of the memory palace — also known as the journey method or the method of loci, and more broadly as the ars memorativa, or “art of memory” — were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the MIddle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Roman senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesman Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books. (9-10)

Memorizing has gotten a bad rap as a mindless way of holding onto facts just long enough to pass the next exam. But it’s not memorization that’s evil, [Tony Buzan] says; it’s the tradition of boring rote learning that he believes has corrupted Western education. “What we have been doing over the last century is defining memory incorrectly, understanding it incompletely, applying it inappropriately, and condemning it because it doesn’t work and isn’t enjoyable,” … (12)

“The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training. What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television. And then we wonder why that person doesn’t do well in the Olympics. That’s what we’ve been doing with memory.” (13)

“I [Ed Cooke] figure that there are two ways of figuring out how the brain works. … The first is the way that empirical psychology does it, which is that you look from the outside and take a load of measurements on a load of different people. The other way follows from the logic that a system’ optimal performance can tell you something about its design. Perhaps the best way to understand human memory is to try very hard to optimize it — ideally with a load of bright people in conditions where they get rigorous and objective feedback. That’s what the memory circuit is.” (15)

Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories. | If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. … In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed form brain to brain in order to be sustained. (19)

What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory? (19)


For all of our griping over the everyday failings of our memories — the misplaced keys, the forgotten name, the factoid stuck on the tip of the tongue — their biggest failing may be that we forget how rarely we forget. (27)

The three-pound mass balanced atop our spines is made up of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of five to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed. (33)

For all the advances that have been made in recent decades, it’s still the case that no one has ever actually seen a memory in the human brain. (34)

The brain makes sense up close and from far away. it’s the in-between — the stuff of thought and memory, the language of the brain — that remains a profound mystery. (34)

The brain is a mutable organ, capable — within limits — of reorganizing itself and readapting to new kinds of sensory input, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. (38)

It’s all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name. (44)

It occurred to me that this was a kind of manufactured synesthesia. (44)

“Baker/baker paradox.”


Everyone has a great memory for something. (53)

There is something about mastering a specific field that breeds a better memory for the details of that field. But what is that something? And can that something somehow be generalized, so that anyone can acquire it? (53)

Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways. They can overcome one of the brain’s most fundamental constraints: the magical number seven. (55)

…our ability to process information and make decisions in world is limited by a fundamental constraint: We can only think about roughly seven things at a time. (56)

Our working memories serve a critical role as a filter between our perception of the world and our long-term memory of it. … In fact, dividing memory between short-term and long-term stores is such a savvy way of managing information that most computers are built around the same model. (57)

Like a computer, our ability to operate in the world, is limited by the amount of information we can juggle at one time. (57)

Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item. (61)

The process of chunking takes seemingly meaningless information and reinterprets it in light of information that is already stored away somewhere in our long-term memory. …when it comes to chunking — and to our memory more broadly — what we already know determines what we’re able to learn. (62)

In most cases, the skill is not the result of conscious reasoning, but pattern recognition. It is a feat of perception and memory, not analysis. (63)

We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context. (65)

Though chess might seem like a trivial subject for a psychologist to study — it is, after all, just a game — De Groot believed that his experiments with chess masters had much larger implications. He argued that expertise in “the filed of shoemaking, painting, building, [or] confectionary” is the result of the same accumulation of “experiential linkings.” According to Ericsson, what we call expertise is really just “vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.” In other words, a great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise; it is the essence of expertise. (66)

Too often we talk about our memories as if they were banks into which we deposit new information when it comes in, and from which we withdraw old information when we need it. But that metaphor doesn’t reflect the way our memories really work. Our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses, in a continuous feedback loop. Everything we see, hear, and smell is inflected by all the things we’ve seen, heard, and smelled in the past. | In ways, as obscure as sexing chickens, and as profound as diagnosing an illness, who we are and what we do is fundamentally a function of what we remember. (67)


EP has two types of amnesia — anterograde, which means he can’t form new memories, and retrograde, which means he can’t recall old memories either, at least not since about 1950. (72)

A meaningful relationship between two people cannot sustain itself only in the present tense. (74)

Without a memory, EP has fallen completely out of time. he has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate. If you were to take the watch off his wrist — or, more cruelly, change the time — he’d be completely lost. Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life, completely free from worry. “He’s happy all the time. Very happy. I guess it’s because he doesn’t have any stress in his life, ” says his daughter Carol, who lives nearby. In his chronic forgetfulness, EP has achieved a kind of pathological enlightenment, a perverted vision of the Buddhist ideal of living entirely in the present. (75)

Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? I don’t mean time in the sense that, say, physicists speak of it: the fourth dimension, the independent variable, the quantity that compresses when you approach the speed of light. I mean psychological time, the tempo at which we experience life’s passage. Time as a mental construct. (75)

“I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer … The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?” [Ed Cooke] “And how are you going to do that?” I asked. “By remembering more. By providing my life with more chronological landmarks. By making myself more aware of time’s passage.” (75)

Our subjective experience of time is highly variable. We all know that days can pass like weeks and months can feel like years, and that the opposite can be just as true: a month or year can zoom by in what feels like no time at all. | Our lives are structured by our memories of events. (76)

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives. (77)

Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. “If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human.” (77)

Like the proverbial tree that falls without anyone hearing it, can an experience that isn’t remembered be meaningfully said to have happened at all? Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life? (78)

…scientists generally divide memories broadly into two types: declarative and nondeclarative (sometimes referred to as explicit and implicit). Declarative memories are things you know you remember, like the color of your car, or what happened yesterday afternoon. EP and HM had lost the ability to make new declarative memories. Nondeclarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror (or what a word flashed rapidly across a computer screen means). (81)

…psychologists make a further distinction between semantic memories, or memories for facts and concepts, and episodic memories, or memories of the experiences of our own lives. Recalling that I had eggs for breakfast this morning would be an episodic memory. Knowing that breakfast is the first meal of the day is semantic memory. Episodic memories are located in time and space: They have a where and a when attached to them. Semantic memories are located outside of time and space, as free-flowing pieces of knowledge. (81)

One of the many mysteries of memory is why an amnesic like EP should be able to remember when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima but not the much more recent fall of the Berlin Wall. For some unknown reason, it’s the most recent memories that blur first in most amnesics, while distant memories retain their clarity. This phenomenon is known as Ribot’s Law, after the nineteenth-century French psychologist who first noted it, and it’s a pattern found also in Alzheimer’s patients. It suggests something profound: that our memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. (82)


“elaborative encoding.” (90)

The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t remember all types of information equally well. … The point of memory techniques is to do what the synasthete S did instinctually: to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. (91)

“The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it. … That’s what elaborative encoding is.” (91)

cf. Rhetorica ad Herennium, written sometime between 86 and 82 BC. (94)

A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. “Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories,” writes Mary Carruthers …the single most common theme in the lives of the saints — besides their superhuman goodness — is their often extraordinary memories. | The Ad Herennium’s discussion of memory — “that treasure-house of inventions and the custodian of all parts of rhetoric” — is actually quite short, about ten pages embedded in a far longer treatise on rhetoric and oration. It begins by making a distinction between natural memory and artificial memory: “The natural memory is that memory which is embedded in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is that memory which is strengthened by a kind of training and system of discipline.” In other words, natural memory is the hardware you’re born with. Artificial memory is the software you run on your hardware.

| Artificial memory, the anonymous author continues, has two basic components: images and places. Images represent the contents of what one wishes to remember. Places — or loci, as they’re called in the original Latin — are where those images are stored.

| The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the “method of loci” by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a “memory palace.” (96)

One of the tragic consequences of embedding narrative into the landscape is that when Native Americans had land taken from them by the U.S. government, they lost not only their home but their mythology as well. (97)

“The thing to understand, Josh, is that humans are very, very good at learning spaces…” (97) “Humans just gobble up spatial information.” (98)

The principle of the memory palace, he continued, is to use one’s exquisite spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally… (98)

“It’s important that you deeply process that image, so you give it as much attention as possible… Things that grab our attention are more memorable, and attention is not something you can simply will. It has to be pulled in by the details. By laying down elaborate, engaging, vivid images in your mind, it more or less guarantees that your brain is going to end up storing a robust, dependable memory. So try to imagine the pleasant smell of the pickled garlic, and exaggerate its proportions. Imagine tasting it. Really let the flavor roll around on your tongue. And make sure you see yourself doing this at the foot of your driveway.” (99)

The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. but if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.” (100)

Which is why Tony Buzan tells anyone who will listen that the World Memory Championship is less a test of memory than of creativity. | When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. (100)

“Animate images tend to be more memorable than inanimate images.” (101)


Before I could embark on any serious degree of memory training, I first needed a stockpile of memory palaces at my disposal. (107)

“My philosophy of life is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed,” [Ed Cooke] said. “Given that an hour of memorization yields about ten solid minutes of spoken poetry, and those ten minutes have enough content to keep you busy for a full day, I figure you can squeeze at least a day’s fun out of each hour of memorization — if you should ever happen to find yourself in solitary confinement.” 9109)

This worldview owes a lot to the collection of ancient and medieval texts on memory that Ed had relentlessly tried to foist upon me. For those early writers, a trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information; it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. A trained memory was the key to cultivating “judgment, citizenship, and piety.” What one memorized helped shape one’s character. (110)

Mere reading is not necessarily learning — a fact that I am personally confronted with every time I try to remember the contents of a book I’ve just put down. To really learn a text, one had to memorize it.

One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks. – Jan Luyken

…maybe, as one European soberly suggested to me, Americans have impoverished memories because we are preoccupied with the future, while folks on the other side of the Atlantic are more concerned with the past. (113)

Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.) (123)

The brain is a costly organ. Though it accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s mass, it uses up a fifth of all the oxygen we breathe, and it’s where a quarter of all our glucose gets burned. (124)

…our brains, in the most reductive sense, are fundamentally prediction and planning machines. And to work efficiently, they have to find order int he chaos of possible memories. From the vast amounts of data pouring in through the senses, our brains must quickly sift out which information is likely to have some bearing on the future, attend to that, and ignore the noise. Much of the chaos that our brains filter out is words, because more often than not, the actual language that conveys an idea is just window dressing. What matters is the res, the meaning of those words. And that’s what our brains are so good at remembering. (124-125)

Until the last tick of history’s clock, cultural transmission meant oral transmission… (125)

It is said that clichés are the worst sin a writer can commit, but to an oral bard, they were essential. The very reason that clichés so easily seep into our speech and writing — their insidious memorability — is exactly why they played such an important role in oral storytelling. And the Odyssey and Iliad, excuse the cliché, are riddled with them. (127-128)

Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory. (128)

The most useful of all the mnemonic tricks employed by the bards was song. … Song is the ultimate structuring device for language. (128)

It is no coincidence that the art of memory was supposedly invented by Simonides at exactly the moment when the use of writing was on the rise in ancient Greece, around the fifth century B.C. (130)

Gunther’s method of creating an image for the un-imageable is a very old one: to visualize a similarly sounding, or punning, word in its place. (131)

This process of transforming words into images involves a kind of remembering by forgetting: In order to memorize a word by its sound, its meaning has to be completely dismissed. (132)

Many actos will tell you that they break their lines into units they call “beats,” each of which involves some specific intention or goal on the character’s part, which they train themselves to empathize with. … Method acting… (133)


Socrates goes on to disparage the idea of passing on his own knowledge through writing, saying it would be “singularly simple-minded to believe that written words can do anything more than remind one of what one already knows.” Writing, for Socrates, could never be anything more than a cue for memory — a way of calling to mind information already in one’s head. Socrates feared that writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path toward intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels. I wonder if Socrates would have appreciated the flagrant irony: It’s only because his pupils Plato and Xenophon put his disdain for the written word into written words that we have any knowledge of it today. (139)

…through at least the Middle Ages, books served not as replacements for memory, but rather as memory aids. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “Things are written down in material books to help the memory.” One read in order to remember, and books were the best available tools for impressing information into the mind. In fact, manuscripts were often copied for no reason other than to help their copier memorize them. (140)

…it wasn’t until about 200 B.C. that the most basic punctuation marks were invented by Aristophanes of Byzantium, the director of the Library of Alexandria… words [use to run] together in an unending stream of capital letters known as scriptio continua, broken up by neither spaces nor punctuation.


…just as it is difficult for all but the most gifted musicians to read musical notes without actually singing them, so too was it difficult to read texts written in scriptio continua without speaking them aloud. In fact, we know that well into the Middle Ages, reading was an activity almost always carried out aloud, a kind of performance, and one most often given before an audience. “Lend ears” is a phrase that is often repeated in medieval texts. (141)

It was probably not until about the ninth century, around the same time that spacing became common and the catalog of punctuation marks grew richer, that the page provided enough information for silent reading to become common. (141)

Since sight-reading scriptio continua was difficult, reciting a text aloud with fluency required a reader to have a degree of familiarity with it. (141)

Ancient texts couldn’t be readily scanned. You couldn’t pull a scroll off the shelf and quickly find a specific excerpt unless you had some baseline familiarity with the entire text. (142)

…scriptio continua has more in common with the way we actually speak than the artificial word divisions on this page. (142)

We don’t speak with spaces. (143)

…the ancient Greek word most commonly used to signify “to read was ánagignósko (αναγιγνοσκω), which means to “know again,” or “to recollect.” Reading as an act of remembering: From our modern vantage point, could there be a more unfamiliar relationship between reader and text? (143)

As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory. (145)

To our memory-bound predecessors, the goal of training one’s memory was not to become a “living book,” but rather a “living concordance,” a walking index of everything one had read, and all the information one had acquired. (146)

Today, we read books “extensively,” without much in the way of sustained focus, and, with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Even in the most highly specialized fields, it can be a Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day. (148)

Our memories, the essence of our selfhood, are actually bound up in a whole lot more than the neurons in our brain. At least as far back as Socrates’s diatribe against writing, our memories have always extended beyond our brains and into other storage containers. Bell’s lifelogging project simply brings that truth into focus. (161)


“Major System,” invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace. The code works like this:







T or D










Sh or Ch

K or G

F or V

P or B

 In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. (169-170)

As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. you could call it the “OK plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving. (170)

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.” (171)

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes. (171)

The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing. (172)

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing — to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. (172)

How is it that we continue to surpass ourselves? Part of Ericsson’s answer is that the barriers we collectively set are as much psychological as innate. (174)

We usually think about our memory as a single, monolithic thing. It’s not. Memory is more like a collection of independent modules and systems, each relying on its own networks of neurons. (175)

Part of the reason techniques like visual imagery and the memory palace work so well is that they enforce a degree of attention and mindfulness that is normally lacking. You can’t create an image of a word, a number, or a person’s name without dwelling on it. And you can’t dwell on something without making it more memorable. (177)

“Although it sounds silly to say ‘No pain, no gain,’ it’s true. One has to hurt, to go through a period of stress, a period of self-doubt, a period of confusion. And then out of that mess can flow the richest tapestries.” (179)


I make no more estimation of repeating a great number of names or words upon once hearing … than I do of the tricks of tumblers, funambuloes, baladines: the one being the same in the mind that the other is in the body, matters of strangeness without worthiness. – Francis Bacon

What does it mean to be intelligent, and what exactly is it that schools are suppose to be teaching? As the role of memory in the conventional sense has diminished, what should its place be in contemporary pedagogy? Why bother loading up kids’ memories with facts if you’re ultimately preparing them for a world of externalized memories? (191)

The only activity more antithetical than memorization to the ideals of modern education is corporal punishment. (191)

…the most dehumanizing institution that I have ever laid eyes upon, each child being treated as if he possessed a memory and the faculty of speech, but no individuality, no sensibilities, no soul. – Dr. Joseph Mayer, in describing one New York City school

At the turn of the twentieth century, rote memorization was still the preferred way to put information, especially history and geography, into kids’ heads. Students could be expected to memorize poetry, great speeches, historical dates, times tables, Latin vocabulary, state capitals, the order of American presidents, and much else. (192)

Tedium was actually seen as a virtue. And the teachers were backed up by a popular scientific theory known as “faculty psychology,” which held that the mind consisted of a handful of specific mental “faculties” that could each individually be trained, like muscles, through rigorous exercise. (193)

But is it possible we’ve been making a huge mistake? (194)

If one of the goals of education is to create inquisitive, knowledgeable people, then you need to give students the most basic signposts that can guide them through a life of learning. And if, as the twelfth-century teacher Hugh of St. Victor put it, “the whole usefulness of education consists only in the memory of it,” then you might as well give them the best tools available to commit their education to memory. (195)

The dichotomy between “learning” and “memorizing” is false, Matthews contends. You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning. (195)

Memory needs to be taught as a skill in exactly the same way that flexibility and strength and stamina are taught to build up a person’s physical health and well being … Students need to learn how to learn. First you teach them how to learn, then you teach them what to learn. – Tony Buzan

In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus. The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new an hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory. – Tony Buzan

The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. (203)

When information goes “in one ear and out the other,” it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to. (207)

Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture. (208)

…crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches. (209)

…intelligence is much, much more than mere memory…but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. the more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. (209)


…we all have remarkable capacities asleep inside of us. If only we bothered ourselves to awaken them. (236)


Joshua Foer won!


I’d upgraded my memory’s software, but my hardware seemed to have remained fundamentally unchanged. (267)

My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. (267)

What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice. (268)

So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? … How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was every produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. …memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human. (270)

— VIA —

Like Gladwell, Foer has given us a gift of insight into the human experience. I’m struck with several implications that were alluded to in this book, but have deeper implications in a couple areas.

The first is counseling. It struck me that the dysfunctions we often deal with — illustrated in disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), RAD (reactive attachment disorder) , and even DID (dissociative identity disorder) — are fundamentally memory-bound issues. It is a paradoxical irony that the health of one’s humanness — namely their ability to remember — can very well be the source of their dysfunction. Understanding the role and characteristic of traumatic memory (or lack thereof, contingent upon the psychological coping mechanism) is something that needs further work to understand how best to treat people with these issues. There may even be new methods of treatment hidden deep in this area of psychology.

The second is biblical history and the command to “remember.” This helps us understand why the “land” is so important in the stories that we read of ancient history, and the “why’s” and “how’s” of literary development through the disruption of ancient civilizations. When we think of “exile,” we now can understand this on deeper levels of memory and meaning, which, as we have read, affects deeply identity, values, and self-perceptions. This may be why the command to “remember” is so often stated in the Biblical narrative.

The third is human relationships and culture. Foer’s closing comments above in the Epilogue elucidate this well. I simply add that I feel a sense of personal connection with the cultural and relational identity, down to how I view and relate to myself, my spouse, and my family.

— The TED Talk —

I’d like to invite you to close your eyes.

Imagine yourself standing outside the front door of your home. I’d like you to notice the color of the door, the material that it’s made out of. Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles. They are competing in a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straight for your front door. I need you to actually see this. They are pedaling really hard, they’re sweaty, they’re bouncing around a lot. And they crash straight into the front door of your home. Bicycles fly everywhere, wheels roll past you, spokes end up in awkward places. Step over the threshold of your door into your foyer, your hallway, whatever’s on the other side, and appreciate the quality of the light. The light is shining down on Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is waving at you from his perch on top of a tan horse. It’s a talking horse. You can practically feel his blue fur tickling your nose. You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie that he’s about to shovel into his mouth. Walk past him. Walk past him into your living room. In your living room, in full imaginative broadband, picture Britney Spears. She is scantily clad, she’s dancing on your coffee table, and she’s singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” And then follow me into your kitchen. In your kitchen, the floor has been paved over with a yellow brick road and out of your oven are coming towards you Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion from “The Wizard of Oz,” hand-in-hand skipping straight towards you.

Okay. Open your eyes.

I want to tell you about a very bizarre contest that is held every spring in New York City. It’s called the United States Memory Championship. And I had gone to cover this contest a few years back as a science journalist expecting, I guess, that this was going to be like the Superbowl of savants. This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.

They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once. They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes. They were competing to see who could memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest. I was like, this is unbelievable. These people must be freaks of nature.

And I started talking to a few of the competitors. This is a guy called Ed Cook who had come over from England where he had one of the best trained memories. And I said to him, “Ed, when did you realize that you were a savant?” And Ed was like, “I’m not a savant. In fact, I have just an average memory. Everybody who competes in this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory. We’ve all trained ourselves to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece, the same techniques that Cicero had used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.” And I was like, “Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?”

And we were standing outside the competition hall, and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant, but somewhat eccentric English guy, says to me, “Josh, you’re an American journalist. Do you know Britney Spears?” I’m like, “What? No. Why?” “Because I really want to teach Britney Spears how to memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards on U.S. national television. It will prove to the world that anybody can do this.”

I was like, “Well I’m not Britney Spears, but maybe you could teach me. I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?” And that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me.

I ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also investigating it, trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn’t work and what its potential might be.

I met a host of really interesting people. This is a guy called E.P. He’s an amnesic who had, very possibly, the very worst memory in the world. His memory was so bad that he didn’t even remember he had a memory problem, which is amazing. And he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extent to which our memories make us who we are.

The other end of the spectrum: I met this guy. This is Kim Peek. He was the basis for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man.” We spent an afternoon together in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating.

And I went back and I read a whole host of memory treatises, treatises written 2,000-plus years ago in Latin in Antiquity and then later in the Middle Ages. And I learned a whole bunch of really interesting stuff. One of the really interesting things that I learned is that once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today. Once upon a time, people invested in their memories, in laboriously furnishing their minds.

Over the last few millenia we’ve invented a series of technologies — from the alphabet to the scroll to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone — that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity. These technologies have made our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed us. They’ve changed us culturally, and I would argue that they’ve changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems like we’ve forgotten how.

One of the last places on Earth where you still find people passionate about this idea of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory is at this totally singular memory contest. It’s actually not that singular, there are contests held all over the world. And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.

A few years back a group of researchers at University College London brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab. They wanted to know: Do these guys have brains that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours? The answer was no. Are they smarter than the rest of us? They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests, and the answer was not really.

There was however one really interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects that they were comparing them to. When they put these guys in an fMRI machine, scanned their brains while they were memorizing numbers and people’s faces and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were lighting up different parts of the brain than everyone else. Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using, a part of the brain that’s involved in spatial memory and navigation. Why? And is there something the rest of us can learn from this?

The sport of competitive memorizing is driven by a kind of arms race where every year somebody comes up with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the field has to play catchup.

This is my friend Ben Pridmore, three-time world memory champion. On his desk in front of him are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards that he is about to try to memorize in one hour, using a technique that he invented and he alone has mastered. He used a similar technique to memorize the precise order of 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour. Yeah.

And while there are a whole host of ways of remembering stuff in these competitions, everything, all of the techniques that are being used, ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer to as elaborative encoding.

And it’s well illustrated by a nifty paradox known as the Baker/baker paradox, which goes like this: If I tell two people to remember the same word, if I say to you, “Remember that there is a guy named Baker.” That’s his name. And I say to you, “Remember that there is a guy who is a baker.” And I come back to you at some point later on, and I say, “Do you remember that word that I told you a while back? Do you remember what it was?” The person who was told his name is Baker is less likely to remember the same word than the person was told his job is that he is a baker. Same word, different amount of remembering; that’s weird. What’s going on here?

Well the name Baker doesn’t actually mean anything to you. It is entirely untethered from all of the other memories floating around in your skull. But the common noun baker, we know bakers. Bakers wear funny white hats. Bakers have flour on their hands. Bakers smell good when they come home from work. Maybe we even know a baker. And when we first hear that word, we start putting these associational hooks into it that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date. The entire art of what is going on in these memory contests and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers — to take information that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning and transform it in some way so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.

One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece. It came to be known as the memory palace. The story behind its creation goes like this: There was a poet called Simonides who was attending a banquet. He was actually the hired entertainment, because back then if you wanted to throw a really slamming party, you didn’t hire a D.J., you hired a poet. And he stands up, delivers his poem from memory, walks out the door, and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses, kills everybody inside. It doesn’t just kill everybody, it mangles the bodies beyond all recognition. Nobody can say who was inside, nobody can say where they were sitting. The bodies can’t be properly buried. It’s one tragedy compounding another. Simonides, standing outside, the sole survivor amid the wreckage, closes his eyes and has this realization, which is that in his mind’s eye, he can see where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting. And he takes the relatives by the hand and guides them each to their loved ones amid the wreckage.

What Simonides figured out at that moment is something that I think we all kind of intuitively know, which is that, as bad as we are at remembering names and phone numbers and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories. If I asked you to recount the first 10 words of the story that I just told you about Simonides, chances are you would have a tough time with it. But I would wager that if I asked you to recall who is sitting on top of a talking tan horse in your foyer right now, you would be able to see that.

The idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined edifice in your mind’s eye and populate it with images of the things that you want to remember — the crazier, weirder, more bizarre, funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it’s likely to be. This is advice that goes back 2,000-plus years to the earliest Latin memory treatises.

So how does this work? Let’s say that you’ve been invited to TED center stage to give a speech and you want to do it from memory, and you want to do it the way that Cicero would have done it if he had been invited to TEDxRome 2,000 years ago. What you might do is picture yourself at the front door of your house. And you’d come up with some sort of an absolutely crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image to remind you that the first thing you want to talk about is this totally bizarre contest. And then you’d go inside your house, and you would see an image of Cookie Monster on top of Mister Ed. And that would remind you that you would want to then introduce your friend Ed Cook. And then you’d see an image of Britney Spears to remind you of this funny anecdote you want to tell. And you go into your kitchen, and the fourth topic you were going to talk about was this strange journey that you went on for a year, and you have some friends to help you remember that.

This is how Roman orators memorized their speeches — not word-for-word, which is just going to screw you up, but topic-for-topic. In fact, the phrase “topic sentence,” that comes from the Greek word “topos,” which means “place.” That’s a vestige of when people used to think about oratory and rhetoric in these sorts of spatial terms. The phrase “in the first place,” that’s like in the first place of your memory palace.

I thought this was just fascinating, and I got really into it. And I went to a few more of these memory contests. And I had this notion that I might write something longer about this subculture of competitive memorizers. But there was a problem. The problem was that a memory contest is a pathologically boring event. (Laughter) Truly, it is like a bunch of people sitting around taking the SATs. I mean, the most dramatic it gets is when somebody starts massaging their temples. And I’m a journalist, I need something to write about. I know that there’s this incredible stuff happening in these people’s minds, but I don’t have access to it.

And I realized, if I was going to tell this story, I needed to walk in their shoes a little bit. And so I started trying to spend 15 or 20 minutes every morning before I sat down with my New York Times just trying to remember something. Maybe it was a poem. Maybe it was names from an old yearbook that I bought at a flea market. And I found that this was shockingly fun. I never would have expected that. It was fun because this is actually not about training your memory. What you’re doing is you’re trying to get better and better and better at creating, at dreaming up, these utterly ludicrous, raunchy, hilarious and hopefully unforgettable images in your mind’s eye. And I got pretty into it.

This is me wearing my standard competitive memorizer’s training kit. It’s a pair of earmuffs and a set of safety goggles that have been masked over except for two small pinholes, because distraction is the competitive memorizer’s greatest enemy.

I ended up coming back to that same contest that I had covered a year earlier. And I had this notion that I might enter it, sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism. It’d make, I thought, maybe a nice epilogue to all my research. Problem was the experiment went haywire. I won the contest, which really wasn’t supposed to happen.

Now it is nice to be able to memorize speeches and phone numbers and shopping lists, but it’s actually kind of beside the point. These are just tricks. They are tricks that work because they’re based on some pretty basic principles about how our brains work. And you don’t have to be building memory palaces or memorizing packs of playing cards to benefit from a little bit of insight about how your mind works.

We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case. Great memories are learned. At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged. We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it’s colorful, when we’re able to transform it in some way that it makes sense in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds, when we’re able to transform Bakers into bakers.

The memory palace, these memory techniques, they’re just shortcuts. In fact, they’re not even really shortcuts. They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. But there actually are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable.

And I think if there’s one thing that I want to leave you with, it’s what E.P., the amnesic who couldn’t even remember that he had a memory problem, left me with, which is the notion that our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by losing ourselves in our Blackberries, our iPhones, by not paying attention to the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we’re not willing to process deeply?

I learned firsthand that there are incredible memory capacities latent in all of us. But if you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.

Thank you.