Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein

Many years ago, long after my parents got cell phones, they decided to get rid of their land-line. Strangely, it seems near impossible for me to forget the old number to that land-line (in case you want me to prove my claim, it was: 7-1-9-5-3-1-6-3-1-7). As a kid, I knew all of my friends telephone numbers by heart too (don’t worry, I won’t bore you by listing them all here). How many telephone numbers of important people in your life do you have memorized today? If you’re anything like me, the answer is, sadly, not many.

This anecdote is a microcosm for an interesting culture phenomenon that has been occurring for quite some time, i.e, we don’t seem to value memory in today’s society as much as we have in the past. Is this a mistake? In his witty and entertaining book, Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer sets out to answer this question and similar tangential questions by immersing himself in an eccentric sub-culture of competitive memorizers. The book is, at least in part, about this esoteric pursuit of becoming the U.S. memory champion and partly about the cultural implications of outsourcing our memory.

Credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, the “memory palace” is the key method still used by today’s memory champions. It involves remembering sequences of words or numbers by imagining objects placed around a physical setting you a very familiar with, e.g., your home. Foer elaborates on why this method works. “We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.”

At one point in the book, Foer states: “If the point of reading were simply to retain knowledge, it would probably be the single least efficient activity I engage in.” I found this to be true for myself as well, although I quickly reassured myself that I would never hope or want the ability to remember everything I read. Rather, if given a special talent involving reading, I would desperately hope to retain only the knowledge that could be broadly classified as wisdom. In other words, only the important stuff.

Many people in modern society, however, seem to believe that all knowledge is created equal and value quantity of reading over quality. I think this is a mistake. Foer describes it beautifully.

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.

I would emphasize that experts must focus on the quality of the information and must be able to sniff out the irrelevant and the trivial.  Memory is, in a word, at the origin of all culture. Foer explains it as follows: “Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their own memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids–a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.” Even Socrates understood the importance of memory; he worried that the very invention of writing would lead the culture down a path of intellectual and moral decay. I obviously don’t necessarily believe this to be true (who knew Socrates was a technophobe?). I think it’s fair, however, to assume that throughout history, both recent and ancient, having a good memory has been at the crux of being intelligent. Foer elaborates on this point beautifully, “Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.” I would strongly argue that it’s a necessary (although not sufficient) quality of being intelligent, but I’ll try to avoid any further digressions on that point. There is, however, an important Socratic question that the book makes you ponder: Is the unremembered life worth living?

At one point in the book Foer makes a compelling argument for embracing novelty and randomness. He writes, “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.” Although I feel somewhat ambivalent towards the statement due to its logical implications, I do, however, agree with the point at large that I assume he was trying to make. Foer goes on to clarify, “Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.” As such, this bolsters the argument that new experiences and visiting new locations can help us (in moderation of course) practice retaining information and making sense of more of the world, which in turn helps us feel psychologically as if we’ve lived a longer life. This meshes with one of my deep held life philosophies about exposing yourself to randomness in both activities and in culture.

The main claim against the need for memory in today’s society is, I think, that the economics of the situation have changed. Why bother to remember anything anymore when you can just outsource your memory to digital technologies? In other words, with technologies like Google we can quickly reference knowledge online, which has made storing knowledge in our head more relatively costly than storing it on the Web. I count this as another strike against thinking like an economist for two reasons:

1) “Who we are and what we do is fundamentally a function of what we remember.”
2) “You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, your can’t memorize without learning.”

It’s interesting to note that if not being able to remember enough is a problem, so is being able to remember too much. What happens if you can’t distinguish between the trivial and the important? As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his short story “Funes the Memorious”, “To think is to forget.” It all comes down to the debate around knowledge. We are inundated and bombarded with information all the time. What a nightmare it would be if we weren’t able to forget false knowledge claims and all of the other garbage that goes into our minds.

In the end, I was reminded of a very important lesson: “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.” Our perception of the world, and consequently how we engage with it, is merely a product of what and how we remember. Besides, Foer adds, “what I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorise, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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9 Comments on “Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein”

  1. datxomin says:

    The mental stimulation that the quality of your post produce on the reader must be considered an act of kindness. Thank you.

    So many things could be said…

    Yes, experts do focus on what matters and dismiss the noise. One could say that this characteristic is indeed what makes them experts… but it isn’t. One becomes an expert by developing mastery over one or several domains of knowledge. In other words, an expert is a person that has consumed a great deal of information and, in the process, has learned to distinguish what is relevant from what is not. And, don’t forget, at the very beginning of any learning process, all knowledge must be considered of equal potential value or else the perils of prejudice will impede the development of the sophistication that will ultimately differentiate the expert from the, at best, knowledgeable.

    Perhaps I am biased by my relationship with language. Perhaps not. Either way, I must object to the notion that “…since humans began painting their own memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids…” I consider the opposite to be true. We have invented new forms of memory (and/or enriched existing ones) by creating additional external manifestations of our memories beyond those that are primal and instinctive. From painting our bodies and written language to any other form of self-expression, we have created a complex universe rich with modes of perceptual stimulus. It is downright brilliant. Just consider a modern textbook and an equivalent from centuries back. The simple use of tables and graphs makes the acquisition of knowledge far more accessible, more memorable.

    “Is the unremembered life worth living?” Of course. A life forgotten is an insignificant blemish on a life. The worry of a life unremembered by oneself is just self-importance as is the worry of a life unremembered by others which is normal and to be expected and desired (let the living live). Also, please don’t forget any of the unspeakably evil some of our fellow human beings force on the lives of others. Amounting to unremembered is top-self.

    The issue of memory dependence on technology is problematic. An easy “but” would be that we need to memorize the nature and working of many artifacts. I remember a time when the idea of a “password” made no sense in real, normal life. But, of course, the subject is far more complex. I would say that those of us that are inclined to “think” can do so better now and for a longer portion of the day than ever before in history and without the requirement of comparatively exceptional economic resources. I would say that those of us that are not inclined to “think” are not doing any less remarkable cognitive work nowadays.

    And, last, yes. Deliberate practice is what counts. However, the amount of deliberate practice is what adds it up. The tally makes the expert.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @google-cc64c304ebd42bf74ec96e59c79288fa:disqus Thanks for the kind words and for the thought provoking comment!

      You make a great point when you say,“an expert is a person that has consumed a great deal of information and, in the process, has learned to distinguish what is relevant from what is not. And, don’t forget, at the very beginning of any learning process, all knowledge must be considered of equal potential value or else the perils of prejudice will impede the development of the sophistication that will ultimately differentiate the expert from the, at best, knowledgeable.” 

      I’m not sure, however, I agree with your second point, at least as it pertains to outsourcing our memories to books and the Web.  You claim that we have invented new forms of memory, but in the most crucial and urgent of situations, the memory that is required is the memory that is located in our mind.  In the end, it is essientially the only one that matters and thus I would argue we should focus on honing it to the best of our ability.  Sometimes we simply don’t get a second chance or a chance to refer to one of our external memories like books or the Web.  I would argue that wisdom is what we want stored in our minds as opposed to certain forms of knowledge that can be outsourced.

      As for the unremembered life, I think if we lost our memory, in its entirety, we would essentially lose the ability to even ask such a question.  Our animal instincts would want us to survive, but I think we would lose something that is fundamentally human, i.e., the ability to ask that question.

      I would agree with you that those of us who are inclined to “think” have the *potential* to do so for a longer portion of the day than ever before; however, we must find ways to filter out the noise that can distract us (like, say, cell phones).

      Lastly, I think you hit the nail on the head.  Quality matters, but quantity does too, albeit not at the expense of quality.  

      • datxomin says:

        Good points, good points.

        The thing is that the use of the word “outsourcing” in this context… is clever but, ultimately, it mostly tries to borrow from its negative implications (which, in turn, originate in nationalistic bigotry… ugly business).

        In any case, has my ability to remember faces been atrophied by the invention of photography? I don’t think so.

        So, it seems to me, the written word has not replaced memory. Rather, it has infringed on some of the domains previously dominated by the spoken word, thereby demoting it from its position of privilege in those domains of our culture. Does this imply that our capacity to remember has been compromised? Unlikely.

        As usual, so much could be said…

        • Greg Linster says:

          Again, you make some great points yourself.

          If we use things like photos, writing, the Web, etc. as “tools”, which perhaps I should have clarified earlier, instead of using them to “outsource” entirely, then, I think we are on the same page.

          Thanks again for the stimulating discussion!

  2. […] Read my review of Moonwalking With Einstein here. […]

  3. […] very own Confessions of a Science Librarian.  You can find my review of the book here. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  4. AlexBerger says:

    This book fascinates me and is on my shortlist of next-reads.  Given my recent return to academia, I find myself once again thrown into an environment where recalling names, dates, and specific associated theories all in unison is important.  At the same time, I’ve spent the last 5 years training my brain to do the opposite through the heavy use of social media, and an ADHD eque skimming approach to articles across a wealth of genres. In the first weeks of my Cognition course I approached my professor with the question – What sources are available on how to re-program my brain and the way I’m storing information to bring it back in tune with a more specific, rote memorization approach?  Unfortunately, he didn’t have a good answer for me.  What I find now is that while I have a wealth of fantastic information and general understanding, it’s in effect a giant reference library and I’m perpetually fuzzy on the specifics until I re-access that particular splinter of information and re-review it when exploring how it might apply in new context. 

    • Greg Linster says:

      @AlexBerger:disqus I think you could be accused of being a well-read generalist, Alex.  Not that being a generalist is a bad thing; I certainly consider myself to have generalist tendencies too.  Unfortunately for us, being a student (at least one who gets decent grades) requires the rote memorization of things that we may not think are worth remembering.  For what it’s worth, I naturally tend to see this whole memorization dilemma as an economic problem.

      Since we all have a limited capacity for what we can remember, this is essentially a scarcity problem.  In the long term, my strategy is to try to and remember the things that I think will help me live a better life.  In other words, the things that I think are most valuable.  While knowledge of, say, detailed history is important, I think it’s more important to be well-read and understand a wide breadth of history than to be an expert in a small portion of history.  Also, since I’m passionate about things like philosophy and economics, I personally find more value in being able to recall philosophical or economic ideas and insights off the top of my head than, say, historical dates.  But I certainly realize that different people will value different things.

      Anyway, there seems to be a great danger in being too reductive about our knowledge as well, which is also part of the reason why I find myself attracted to such a wide breadth of fields.  I’ve found that people who know a little about a lot tend to have more interesting worldviews than do people who know a lot about a little.  Although, there is definitely a need for both the former and the latter.  Also, I’m by no means trying to discourage people from gaining an expertise in a field where there can be experts.  We need them, but I think we also need generalists!

      As for two practical tips related to memorization and academia, I’ve found that reading actual physical books has helped me immensely (I spend enough time staring at screens as it is).  I’m also going back through some of my favorite books and reading them again.  Not surprisingly, I’ve found that I retain a lot more knowledge when I read a book more than once, especially within a couple year period.  Secondly, I like to read and study in cafes, but not always the same ones.  Changing up the scenery frequently helps me, I think, maintain a sharper focus by providing new stimuli, which in turn enables me to absorb more information into my mind.

      • AlexBerger says:

        I think there is definitely something to changing your backdrop.  When dancing I quickly learned that if I learned a move exclusively facing one wall of the room, then even something as simple as facing the opposite direction was enough to completely confuse the move.  I’d created visual spatial connections to the space I was in. 

        I also agree on the Generalist focus. It has actually been something I’ve aspired towards. While not conducive, as you’ve noted, to the best grades it definitely fits more with my personal goals, interests, and desired place in the world.  The contrast always fascinated me while doing my undergrad in the Honors College, where most of the kids were fantastic specialists with some form of photographic memory or another.   They’re incredibly talented in their space, but tend to suffer from over specialization which limits their ability to flexibly apply that extensive knowledge.  On the flip side, without that specialization, I don’t think a lot of the most complex science and philosophical musings could happen.   It’s an interesting interplay, and definition something that should be less competitive and more complimentary than we are prone to making it. 


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