Moonwalking With Einstein

In thiswise, witty, and fairly memorable book, science writer JoshuaFoer—brother of both former New Republiceditor Franklin and wunderkind novelistJonathan Safran—cuts his own writerly teeth on a mysterious, dense, andoccasionally spongy subject: the workings of human memory. Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of RememberingEverything isn’t,however, just a book about science, or about abstract practices of remembering,it’s also Foer’s quasi-memoir about the year he became, by an odd string ofevents, the winner of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even while Foer relates agreat deal about the history, cultural relevance, and new science of recall, hetakes himself as his own subject, setting out to see what he can learn bytrying to improve his own memory. On the journey, he visits things as diverseas card memorization, Renaissance literature, and chicken sexing, as well asthe wacky circuit of competitive memory trainers, who spend large portions oftheir days training themselves to memorize elaborate strings of binary numbersat lightning speed.

All of this emerged, it seems, from a moment of unconsciouswhimsy. One day in 2005, Foer, recently graduated from college and traveling towrite a freelance article, stopped by the Weightlifting Hall of Fame. Afterseeing pictures of the world’s strongest man, he began to wonder about theworld’s smartest. Smartness is of course relative, but some Internet searchinguncovered people who held the world championships in memory—who had performedelaborate feats such as memorizing decks of cards in under four minutes, orreciting pi out to its farthest decimal. The idea of the memory championstanding in as a proxy for human smartness intrigued him. Following his hunchwith an article, Foer met a cocksure Brit named Ed, a ranking “grandmasterof memory,” who promised to teach him to improve his memory so that he,Foer, could win such a title. Foer was intrigued and drawn in. For therest of the book, Foer follows a world that runs parallel to, but is not thesame thing as, remembering: the geeky subculture of people who train for andcompete in memory competitions.

The book that emerges traces a highly unusual journeyreflecting what Foer learns about memory, about memory training, and abouthimself. The first two subjects are ultimately the most fascinating—soengrossing they make the book hard to put down. In attempting to remember more,Foer delves into a seemingly forgotten aspect of the ancient world: the factthat in the time before computers and iPhones, but really before, say, even themass printing of that seemingly-endangered technology called the book, if youwanted to learn something you had to memorize it.

Accordingly, ancient learning was memorizing, and learning was also learning how to memorize. Foer is at hisrichest when he’s uncovering now-lost medieval memory techniques and linkingthem to the ways we now understand that the fibers of memory work today. Foerexplores a new-to-us but common-to-the-ancients technique called the MemoryPalace, where, to master lists, one deposits items along them in a spatialpattern with which one is familiar: i.e., to remember your to-do list imagineits items strewn in a familiar path along your route to work. (Apparently ourspatial memories are richer and stronger than our other forms of remembering).Foer notes how older memory techniques rely on expanding the network ofassociations in which the memory is placed, and then developing those networksso that large strings of memory can lodge in them. This can allow, perhapsquite literally, for mind-expansion: Foer muses enticingly about how memory, orincreased memory, might be linked to things as seemingly discrete as both mindfulnessand expertise—how the very fabric of being able to remember better has thecapacity to enlarge both our perception and our experience of the world.

Here’s the thing: this wonderful, rich, philosophical,well-written premise devolves over its 277 pages into an account of Foerspending long hours to learn what essentially amount to a couple of trickystunts—being able to recite the order of a deck of cards in the fastestpossible time, or retain arcane bits of knowledge more effectively over thecourse of a competition which has him regurgitate them. By the end, even Foerseems tired: upon winning the U.S. memory competition, his first emotion “wasnot happiness or relief or self-congratulation.” It was, he discovers, “simplyexhaustion.” And what seemed promising about being able to remembermore—that it might lead one to a space of expertise, or a more richly texturedlife—these payoffs seem not to emerge in Foer’s meditation on his post-championshiphaze, which mostly consists of getting wasted with his new British friends.

If, in the end, the book has less payoff than it might, it’sstill both humorous and intriguing. One finds oneself thinking of the memorypalace, that artificial mental structure by which a mind could be furnishedwith perhaps unlimited marvels. We live in an era when some of us forget evenour own phone numbers. But the mind is a bigger thing than any of us realize,and Foer reminds us to keep exploring it.