Book notes: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer book summary.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer


Synopsis: “Foer’s unlikely journey from chronically forgetful science journalist to U.S. Memory Champion frames a revelatory exploration of the vast, hidden impact of memory on every aspect of our lives.

Moonwalking with Einstein draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human remembering. Under the tutelage of top “mental athletes”, he learns ancient techniques once employed by Cicero to memorize his speeches and by Medieval scholars to memorize entire books. Using methods that have been largely forgotten, Foer discovers that we can all dramatically improve our memories.

Moonwalking with Einsteinย brings Joshua Foer to the apex of the U.S. Memory Championship and readers to a profound appreciation of a gift we all possess but that too often slips our minds.” – Audible

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Journalist Joshua Foer shares what he learned after spending a year training with the world’s best mental athletes and making it to the U.S. Memory Championship.

Opening thoughts:

I definitely remember getting this recommendation from Tim Ferris podcast when one of his guests mentioned it. All I know about this book is based on the synopsis and how some journalist goes into the memory athletics circuit and becomes a champion himself. I’m hoping it will teach some of the tactics and techniques that these memory athletes use to remember and accomplish these amazing feats like a whole deck of cards.

Key notes:

  • Brains are notoriously harder to quantify then brawns
  • Even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly
  • Synesthesia is when your senses are intertwined, such as certain sounds having a color or taste
  • Perhaps it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human
    • To make sense of the world, we must filter it
  • The mental athlete said they were consciously converting the information they were asked to memorize into images and distributing those images along familiar spatial journeys
  • Memory technique for names: associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine
    • Create a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of a person’s face to a visual memory connected to a person’s name
  • We don’t remember isolated facts, we remember things in context
  • This man named “EP” suffers from long and short-term memory loss, but his daughter feels like he doesn’t have any stress in his life which makes him very happy
    • With his chronic forgetfulness, he has achieved a kind of “pathological enlightenment”, a perverted vision of the Buddhist ideal of living entirely in the present
  • We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events. We accumulate life experiences by integrating them into a web of other chronological memories
    • Monotony collapses time, novelty unfolds it
    • This is why it is 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
  • Scientists generally divide memories into two types: declarative and non-declarative. Sometimes referred to as “explicit” and “implicit”
    • Declarative memories are things you know you remember, such as the color of your car or what happened yesterday afternoon
    • Non-declarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike
      • Within declarative memories, psychologist make further distinctions between semantic memories, or memories for facts and concepts, and episodic memories, more memories of the experiences of our own lives
        • 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-floating pieces of knowledge
  • 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 memories and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged
    • But in the process, we also transform a memory and reshape it
  • It’s not that sleep plays a critical role in this process of consolidating our memories and driving meaning out of them
  • Infants lack the capacity to embed their memories in a web of meaning that will make them accessible later in life
    • Those structures only developed over time through exposure to the world
  • Human memory evolved to assist us in our hunter-gatherer days
    • So much of what we use our memory for today isn’t as relevant when we evolved into the beings we are today, such as learning names and phone numbers and retaining a lot of useless information
    • Humans are very good at learning spaces
  • For the memory palace technique, visualize the object with as much sensory information in a certain pathway of your childhood home
    • For example, a jar of pickled garlic in your driveway, and then some famous person swimming in a tub of cottage cheese at your front door
    • The memory championship is more a challenge of creativity than of memory because of how much is required to conjure these elaborate images in your head
  • Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting and therefore memorable: jokes and sex
    • Especially jokes about sex
    • Animate objects tend to be more memorable than inanimate objects
  • The author instructs readers to create images of exceptional beauty or singular ugliness, to put them into motion, and to ornaments them in ways that’s render them more distinct
    • Making these objects more novel will make them more distinct and encoded into your memory
  • The brain is a costly organ. Though it accounts for only 2% of the body’s mass, it uses up 1/5 of all the oxygen we breathe. And it is where 1/4 of our glucose gets burned
    • The brain is the most energetically expensive piece of equipment in our body, and has been ruthlessly honed by natural selection to be efficient at the tasks for which it is evolved
    • If you strip away a lot of things, our brains are fundamentally prediction and planning machines. And to work efficiently, they have to find order in the chaos of possible memories
  • Our brains are good at recalling the meaning of words, not necessarily the words verbatim
  • Song is the ultimate structuring device for language

Reader’s note: I appreciate all of this is historical context on the development of language, writing, and punctuation, and how people passed along texts back in the day. I’m not taking notes on a large chunk of the stuff, but it is fascinating to hear and learn about

  • If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon and repeated
  • Before the printing press, people only had a couple books and read them intensively, so that the repetition ingrained the ideas onto them
    • After the printing press, people read extensively without much focus on one, and people hardly read the same book twice
  • We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice if we want to keep up with the broader culture
  • The PAO system combines a person with an action with an object that translates into any two digit number
  • The Major system is a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words and then images for a memory palace
    • The code works like this:
      • 0 = S
      • 1 = T or D
      • 2 = N
      • 3 = M
      • 4 = R
      • 5 = l
      • 6 = SH or CH
      • 7 = K or G
      • 8 = F or V
      • 9 = P or B
    • To make those consonants meaningful, you are allowed to freely intersperse vowels
    • The advantage of the major system is that it is straightforward and you can use it right out of the box. But nobody wins any international memory competition with the major system
  • To be maximally memorable, one’s images have to appeal to one’s own sense of what is colorful and interesting
  • Top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out the autonomous phase while they practice by doing three things:
    1. Focusing on their technique
    2. Staying goal oriented
    3. Getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.
  • In other words, they force themselves to stay in the cognitive phase
  • Deliberate practice by its nature is hard. What you spend your time practicing is far more important than the time you spend
    • To improve, we must watch ourselves fail and learn from our mistakes
  • The single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill it’s not the number of games he’s played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he spent sitting alone working through old games
    • 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 autopilotย 
  • The barriers we collectively set are as much psychological as innate. Once a benchmark is deemed breakable, it usually doesn’t take long for someone to break it
  • No pain no gain. One has to hurt, to go through a period of stress, a period of self-doubt and confusion
    • And then out of that mess can flow the richest tapestries
  • Ed’s party was designed to have multiple chambers and small rooms to maximize the memorableness of the party
  • Schools have deemphasized raw knowledge, and instead stress their role in fostering reasoning ability, creativity, and independent thinking
    • If 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
    • You can’t use and analyze information if you cannot retrieve it. And you cannot retrieve it if you haven’t put it in the first place
  • Students need to learn how to learn. Then they need to know what to learn
  • 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 to create something new and hurl it into the future so it’s become something
    • Creativity is, in a sense, future memory

Reader’s note: Wow… Mind. Blown.

  • The argument against image pneumonics for memorization is it is not contextual. The argument for it is that you have to start somewhere, and having the info stick and readily accessible is better than having it forgotten
  • You need facts to fasten other facts to. Without that informational context, you won’t have the ability to learn
    • It takes knowledge to gain knowledge
    • Without a contextual framework in which to embed what you’re learning, it’ll make you an amnesiac
  • The goal of education is not merely to cram a bunch of facts into students heads. It’s to learn them to understand those facts
    • You want thinkers, not just repeaters. The more you know, the easier it is to know more
  • Knowledge is like a spider web that grows the more it catches, then catches the more it grows
    • Memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. There’s a feedback loop between the two. 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 more we can remember about it
  • Daniel, a prodigious savant, look like an ordinary person but he wasn’t. He was born in the UK outside of London and has a book called Born on a Blue Day
    • He has synesthesia and sees numbers up to 10,000 as different things which allows him to do a quick mental math
    • Daniel also has an aesburgers syndrome, a form of high functioning autism. With the inability to empathize with people
  • Before the 1970s, the term “savant” had an entirely different connotation than it does today
    • It was the highest epithet that could be bestowed on a man of learning. A savant it was someone who had mastered multiple fields
  • Lack of sleep is the enemy of memory
  • He won the US memory championship
  • He was offered to be inducted into the KL7, a hallowed organization for elite memory athletes

Reader’s note: Wow this was a phenomenal story. I love how he just came out of nowhere as a rookie. After one year of intense training and guided mentorship, he became the US memory champion. He also placed 13th of 37 in the world championships

  • While he could memorize structured information using tools like the memory palace, he still couldn’t remember things like where his keys were or where he parked his car
  • His year-long adventure in the memory circuit validated the idea that practice makes perfect, if it’s the kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice
    • With focus, motivation, and time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things
    • This was tremendously empowering for him. It made him ask, “what else am I capable of doing with the right approach?
  • What he had really trained his brain to do is be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around him
    • Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice
  • 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

Closing thoughts:

First off, wow. I had a feeling I would enjoy this book, but didn’t know it would be this great. What an incredible story!

I enjoyed that around the center of the book, there is a slight shift from the author’s narrative to a discussion on the science and history of memory. He really has done his research and seems to have included an exhaustive background on what we know about memory from the past until today. It then goes back and forth as he progresses in his narrative.

There’s definitely a lot of principles to distill from his journey, and I do appreciate that he broke down some of the techniques used like the PAO system and the Major system.

I also appreciated how he called attention to all the mentorship and guidance he received from people way out of his league. In order to be world-class, you have to train with the best. He won the U.S. championships by training with International champions.

I love the principle he gets to at the end where this whole adventure was extremely empowering for him. I think we should all ask ourselves, “what am I truly capable of if I take the right approach, with focused, deliberate, and self-conscious effort?” It was such an incredible journey and end result, it’s hard not to be inspired by it all.

Lastly, I think a key takeaway is also to realize that memory is a conscious effort to take notice of what’s around us. In a world that emphasizes quantity, sometimes we just need to take in and notice the quality.

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