Review: Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

Joshua Foer, brother of a fiction writer whom I frequently mix up with Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, was writing a story about the world memory champions, people who can memorize the order of multiple decks of cards in five minutes, people who can repeat with perfect accuracy lists of thousands of complicated, unrelated items. Without exception, the memory champions he speaks to assure him that they are not special, their brains are not exceptional, and that anyone could learn to be a memory champion. Foer decides to put this theory to the test by seeing if he can become the US memory champion in the following year’s championship.

If you are interested in cognitive psychology and neurobiology and just anything to do with brains (and I am), much of the incidental material in Moonwalking with Einstein will already be familiar to you. For example, this thing about sexing chicks: It is incredibly difficult to sex baby chickens, because in many cases there are no clearly describable differences between male chicks and female chicks. But people who sex chicks for a living eventually reach a point at which they do it accurately over 95% of the time. They can’t say how they know the sex of the chick. They just know. Human brains!

On the other hand, I really enjoy reading about weird subcultures, and the weird subculture of memory champions was no exception. Foer writes engagingly about the two championships he attends, at which world-class memory experts may freeze on the fifth card in the pack, and Americans ruefully admit that other countries are better at memory than America is. I had not previously heard of “memory palaces”, the technique everybody uses for remembering a series of things, and that was an interesting thing. Basically you call to mind a space with which you are very familiar — say, the house where you grew up — then populate it with images of the items you are trying to remember. Then to recall them, you take a mental stroll through your childhood home, and there you will see all the stuff you’ve put there. Cool, eh?

You could read this book and decide to become a memory champion your own damn self, because the memory champions are telling the truth: It’s not about having a special brain. It’s just about practicing a lot. What I discovered while reading Moonwalking with Einstein is that writing lists is just not onerous enough to make it worthwhile to practice being a memory champion for two hours a day. Much in the same way that being awesome at cooking is not worth practicing that for two hours.

Foer includes a chapter about a British man called Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant whose abilities Foer doubts. I’m not sure, really, what place this chapter has in this book — it seemed a bit out of left field — but nevertheless, it was interesting. Foer believes that Daniel does not really have the perfect memory he claims, that he is using the same memory tricks Foer himself uses. It was a weird little nonsequitur of a chapter but I still am a fan of reading about weird subcultures and unusual people, and so I enjoyed it a lot.

Well, that’s about all I have to say. Memory palaces. Americans are not good at memory compared to citizens of other countries. I am too lazy to practice things. Sexing chicks & other stuff I already knew about from having a crush on cognitive psychology. All in all, Moonwalking with Einstein was not substantive enough for the circumstances in which I read it, which were that I missed the 3:30 bus to the airport by one minute and had to sit in the very, very cold bus station for an hour waiting for the next bus. And then once I was on the bus, I was petrified that I would miss the airport stop and end up being dropped off somewhere in the wilds of Westchester and not be able to get to the airport EVER. And once I was at the airport I was afraid they would bump me off of my very full flight and I would not be able to reach my destination in time.

…Yes, I am a stressy traveler. Why do you ask?

Other reviews are here! Oh, and in case you do not already know about RadioLab, can I take this opportunity to suggest that you check them out? Their show on memory and forgetting is here, dealing with some of the same issues Joshua Foer raises, and I love them so so much. RadioLab is made out of happiness and fascination.

  • I want to read this book but haven’t yet, but just the other day I was telling my boyfriend that he should read it. I forget who blogged about it semi-recently – maybe Stefanie at So Many Books – but I was intrigued when I heard about it and I remain intrigued. (My boyfriend was moaning about the fact that he feels like his memory is horrible, and how he’ll be hanging out with his friends and then the conversation somehow turns to the Mongol Empire and his friends are spouting facts about Genghis Khan and he’s annoyed that he doesn’t remember anything about Genghis Khan. To which I said, 1) “maybe you’re just not interested in Genghis Khan,” and 2) “but you should totally read Moonwalking with Einstein and learn about memory champions and how to improve your memory!”)

    • Well, I don’t think this is going to help your boyfriend’s memory. It’s techniques for memorizing a series of facts, not getting better at remember random facts. BUT if it’s any consolation, the technique is kind of labor intensive and maybe wouldn’t have been worth your boyfriend’s time anyway.

  • I didn’t know that about sexing baby chicks…fascinating!

    • Isn’t it? How do they KNOW?

  • I have this book, and have not read it yet, but some of the things that the author recommends to improve your memory sound very complex and time consuming, as you’ve mentioned. I tend to have a great memory when the subject is something that I am interested in, but the quality of my recall goes down a bit in relation to my disinterest in the subject. And that’s ok with me. I don’t really feel the need to remember everything, though it would be nice if I could attain that level without a lot of practice. It doesn’t sound like I can though. Very comprehensive and fascinating review today. Thanks!

    • Yeah, the techniques are SO time consuming. It’s more effort than I’m willing to put forth to acquire that particular skill set. I mean, if I want to memorize a list of things, I can just write down the list of things and take the list with me.

  • I didn’t finish this one convinced that it was worth my time to become a memory champion either, or that I really wanted to practice improving my memory… but I like weird subcultures too. I think this is a good intro to cognitive psych sort of book, since like you say a lot is familiar if you read on the topic a lot.

    • Yeah, I think it’s at least an interesting look into how the whole thing’s accomplished — but it’s easy to understand why more people don’t do it.

  • Great review, Jenny. The title alone was inticing, but your review whets my interest even more. I’m not interested in improving my memory though, it sounds like a good read.

    • I know, isn’t it a good title?

  • Sexing any animal smaller than a human hand is apparently pretty difficult. When we got a rabbit, I thought it was important to know if it was a boy or a girl. The person who sold us the rabbit claimed it was a girl. One of my daughter’s friends, who was in 4-H, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt, at my daughter’s 10th birthday party, that our rabbit is male.

    • Really? Interesting! I mean, I wouldn’t feel reliably able to sex any animals whatsoever — we had a little kitten for a while that the entire family completely failed to sex. Turned out it was a boy kitten. (My aunt sexed it for us, there were no birthday fiascos.)

  • I think that my son took my memory. He has a fantastic one and after pregnancy I never got mine back. Grr … 😉

    • Darn that kid! :p

  • This one has been on my list for a while, and I think I’ll order me a copy today. I love reading about the brain and about memory, and I’ve been interested in memory palaces for a long time.

    I recently watched this video about an artist with memory loss and the study John Hopkins is doing on the brain and creativity.

    • Thanks for the link! I’m bookmarking it to watch later — I am super interested in brain stuff.

  • Sounds fun. But I am still torn between teleportation and invisibility.

    • I do not understand how you can be torn between teleportation and invisibility. What would you even DO with invisibility? Teleportation is more useful! You could pop to London for an evening ANY TIME.

      • I could go anywhere safely and FOR FREE (as long as I were willing to stand if there were no seats on the plane) and I could listen in on deeply interesting conversations and not be bothered with people if I didn’t want to be. Also, I could make my car look like Herbie. So, FUN.

      • You could go anywhere safely and free with teleportation except WITHOUT HAVING TO GET ON A PLANE. How is your thing better?

  • My thing is better because I can also WALK safely, like at night in dangerous areas, and I love to walk and I would love to go to dangerous places to see all the things. I can be there for ages and not have to exit desperately. I can sneak into theaters and see awesome plays for free too. I can lean on the stage or even get UP on the stage and no ushers will close in on me and hustle me out. If I get mad at someone, I can go and haunt their house! Also, the other things still apply. I notice you didn’t even address making my car into Herbie. I think we both know why THAT is.

    • I didn’t address the Herbie thing because it’s nonsense and is nothing I have ever desired, nor do I desire it now.

      You can sneak into plays if invisible but YOU will know and GOD will know that you are doing something immoral. So, you know, enjoy that.

      The thing about being invisible is that if you, in the dangerous areas, bump into someone or are otherwise discovered, you canNOT exit desperately. You can just continue being invisible. If you have ever seen any movie or read any book, you will be fully cognizant that it is possible for unpleasant things to happen to people while invisible. Whereas, yes, I will have to be slightly more discreet with where I walk, but in case of disaster I will be safe as houses because with only a thought I can be back in my own room.

      PS, YOU KNOW and just do not want to admit that teleportation is better just on the grounds that you’d never have to have an unpleasant travel experience ever again. It would be easier than walking from the living room to the kitchen. EASIER THAN THAT.

  • I read this book at the end of last year and loved it. I have a horrible memory plus I love cognitive psychology so I picked this one up. I tried the memory palaces trick and it definitely works. It’s not really work but that you have to pay attention to what you’re trying to memorize.

    • It does work! For sure. I was amazed at how well it works. I just can’t be bothered doing it myself, when I so handily have paper and pens to write down lists with.

  • I can’t get myself interested in this book despite the fact that others have enjoyed it. But the thing about sexing baby chicks is fascinating! Also, I believe memory palaces came up in some way in one of Laurie King’s Mary Russell series. I am with you in confusing the Jonathan’s, helped by the fact that I haven’t read any of their books. I could see the benefits of teleportation, but I’ve secretly always desired the ability to fly.

  • Flying would be fun, I admit, but I keep coming back to how useful teleportation would be. It would just be so useful!

  • I think the phrase ‘sexing chicks’ is going to get you a lot of unexpected visitors to your blog, hur hur. Maybe you will convince them to go read a proper book and improve themselves? If so, that would be excellent charity work. I almost got this book for my husband this afternoon as it looked jolly and he has practically no memory. I used to have an awesome memory but remembering 90, 000 disparate things every day as the mother of a family destroyed it. Mumsy might be able to bear me out on this.

  • Mom gave me this book and it looked so boring I gave it away to Dusty who told me it was interesting and I thought he was probably lying and then he gave it to HIS mom and SHE loved it but I refuse to read it even though my mom actually told me it would quote-unquote “make me smarter.”

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