Friday, September 7, 2012

Book on memory fascinating, not life-changing

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one who perceives (and is anxious) that his memory is diminishing, I was hooked by Joshua Foer's subtitle, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

The storyline of the book is the author's year-long journey from covering the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a journalist, to competing in 2006 ... and winning!

Moonwalking is an entertaining blend of the science of memory, case studies of mental abnormalities, and Foer's own training for the Memory Championship.

Throughout the book Foer introduces readers to such individuals as EP, who can only remember back to his most recent thought; Kim Peek, inspiration for Rain Man who remembers everything, including the contents of phone books he scans at 10 secs. per page; and S, who has synethesia, a condition where the senses are intertwined in such a way that forgetting anything is next to impossible.

Tasks that mental athletes train to do include memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards (Foer did this in 100 secs. at the Memory Championship), memorizing random lists of numbers (1000 in 5 mins.), random lists of words (300 in 15 mins.), and poems. The technique most often used is called the memory palace, where picturesque and bizarre images are stored in various locations within a building (house, library, etc.) in the athlete's mind, and later retrieved. Memory palaces, contends the author, are far more effective than rote memorization.

To me, the stuff these guys work so hard to memorize is banal. I'm far more interested in remembering concepts, ideas, arguments, and sources, than I am in a deck of cards or the digits of pi (the world record currently at 67,890).

True confession time: I was looking for tricks; effortless ways to significantly increase my memory. Big take away from the book: memorizing takes a lot of work, whether by rote or by memory palace. At this point I doubt I'll change my rote memorizing ways.

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