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Moonwalking with Einstein

I know from your correspondence that many of you download my puzzles to keep your brains active and sharp. If this describes you, I think you’ll like the new book by Joshua Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

[ Self disclosure: I should mention that I once lunched with Josh, a young science journalist, some years ago in connection with my Athanasius Kircher project. He was the secretary of the then active Athanasius Kircher Society. We are both huge Kircher fanboys. ]

From the first few Amazon user reviews, you might be inclined to believe this is a self-help book for improving your memory. It can be viewed that way, but the book is actually an interesting piece of investigative science journalism combined with a memoir, that just happens to offer some useful techniques for remembering things.

Josh describes his yearlong journey from being a bright, nerdy, but otherwise normal guy living in his parent’s basement to being a finalist in the U.S. Memory Championship in 2006. Along the way we meet a fascinating cast of hucksters, eccentrics, scientists and savants.

As Josh trains his mind to do seemingly impossible things, he shares his techniques, such as storing hundreds of random factoids in a “memory palace”, and we practice along with him. At the same time, he takes us on a wonderful tour of classical approaches to memory training and reveals how the nature of externalization of memory (writing, printing and computers) has changed the way we thing about and use our brains over the centuries.

Josh provides a healthy dose of skepticism and debunks some commonly held myths like “photographic memory.” He has a fascinating encounter with a celebrated “savant” who may be less remarkable than he claims to be. In fact, most of the contestants we meet claim to be normal people who have trained themselves using an arsenal of specialized techniques for remembering things.

I love that the book offers hope to all of us who feel increasingly addled. When I was 20 years old, it didn’t bother me when I lost my keys. Now it does, and it is all too easy to blame it on aging. How welcome it was to read this passage:

My own memory was average at best. Among the things I regularly forget: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); the food in the oven; that it’s “its” and not “it’s”; my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day; the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar (ouch); my friends’ phone numbers; why I just opened the fridge; to plug in my cell phone; the name of President Bush’s chief of staff; the order of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops; which year the Redskins last won the Super Bowl; to put the toilet seat down.

Sound familiar? If this guy can memorize a deck of cards in under two minutes, so can you.

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One Response to “Moonwalking with Einstein”

  1. Paul Says:

    See also:
    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html