Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

This book chronicles journalist Joshua Foer as he delves into the strange world of modern competitive memorisation. The reader follows Foer as he transitions through the roles of impressed spectator, struggling student, and finally, after a year of training, United States memory champion. The reader gets taken on Foer’s journey as he investigates the interesting history of memory, discusses how its role has changed over time in human society, and meets plenty of quaint characters, all whilst training to improving his own memorisation abilities.

I’m interested in the tricks used by modern competitive memorisers–which are actually mostly the same tricks used by the ancients–since they make for neat party tricks; also, being able to memorise hundreds of random digits or several packs of cards might even be useful for science, somehow. The main trick the professionals use is to exploit our natural aptitude for remembering and mentally exploring familiar physical environments by constructing a ‘memory palace‘. This is a mental reconstruction of a familiar environment, your childhood home or primary school for example, in which you mentally place certain memorable images at fixed positions along some pre-designed route through that environment, where each image corresponds to an item on the list you want to remember. To recall the entire ordered list, one just needs to mentally retrace the route through the memory palace and translate the images back to whatever it was you were trying to memorise. Getting good at this requires lots of practise, of course, but in principle anyone can do it.

One part of the book that caught my attention in particular was when Foer has several meetings with Daniel Tammet, the well-known high-functioning ‘prodigious’ savant (whose book Thinking in Numbers sits unread on my bookshelf at home). Foer makes several curious observations that refute Tammet’s savant status and lend credence to his hypothesis that Tammet is actually just well-trained in mnemonic techniques, and even confronts Tammet about this. Predictably, there’s no conclusive evidence either way, but it’s a new skeptical viewpoint that’s plausible and fun to consider.

Overall, this is a great story interwoven with a fascinating topic and odd characters. What more could you want?

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