Ever read about these “savants” who can recite the value of pi out to hundreds of places, or repeat the exact order of a deck of cards after just one look through? Guess what: they may be nothing more than normal folks who have discovered something cool: crowd-wowing (if not always chick-summoning) memory retention can be taught, and it can be learned, and it doesn’t require genius, only desire and diligence. That may sound like the claim of a dubious late-night infomercial, but Joshua Foer proved its truth while researching his wonderful new book MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN – because the guinea pig he used was himself.
Mr. Foer (of the writin’ Foers: his older brothers are Jonathan Safran, author of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED; and Franklin, former editor of The New Republic) attended the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship for Slate, where he witnessed feats equal to and greater than those listed above, and many more. Yet the “mental athletes” he talked to all insisted that theirs were only average memories. Anybody could compete with them, given the right training and enough hours to see it through. Tony Buzan, an English entrepreneur/huckster who has built a nice business out of memory-training courses, inspired this book with the words, “Instead of asking me all these questions, you should just try it for yourself.” Mr. Foer enlisted Ed Cooke, a British master memorist (so far, the U.S. is way outclassed in the World Championship), as his “trainer,” and vowed to compete in the U.S. event one year later. This quest is the spine which supports the book’s greater corpus, a fascinating rumination on the role of memory in culture and science, and the still unknown consequences of its relatively recent diminishment in relevance.
The first crucial step is provided (at least in lore) by Simonides of Ceos, the fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet who narrowly survived a grisly roof collapse in the banquet hall where he had been celebrating moments before. He shut his eyes, concentrated, and was able to remember the seating of the various guests, and thus help their survivors sort through the horribly mangled bodies in the rubble. Thus was the “memory palace” born, and with it an awesome pathway to retention.
Master memorists construct their own individual memory palaces, imagining actual rooms in which they store images – the more outrageous the better; see the book title – which help them associate whatever needs to be recalled: playing cards, proper names, random numbers, free-verse poetry. This is a trick which anyone can perform. After enough practice, it becomes a skill. After enough experience, it becomes an art, very much like world-class chicken sexing, as Mr. Foer explains with deadpan earnestness.
What memory once contributed to human development is long, er, forgotten by most of us. The educated and/or widely-read people of antiquity pored over information repeatedly, until they were able to mentally catalog it and retrieve as needed – because they might never see those words again. We take for granted early improvements in information technology, but they had profound effects on how people remembered. Take paginated books, which are to scrolls what a floppy disk is to a TRS-80 cassette drive: for the first time, one had random access to any page; you didn’t have to roll through the entire volume to find a particular passage. Or indexing, which allows us to access a particular subject without even reading the book. Some think our REM-speed web browsers are changing comprehension, but they’re only speeding up something which started long ago. There’s precious little need to remember any more. With careful editorial sifting, the net does most of our remembering for us. Books? We read most of ‘em only once and immediately start forgetting.
Ever the journalist, even when he himself is the subject, Mr. Foer takes the trouble to seek out contemporary savants (the word “idiot” is, rightly, no longer attached) to discover “the little Rain Man in all of us.” These are people who have suffered rare traumas which have left part of the brain intact, and possibly even accentuated that portion’s powers. By virtue of his memory training, he is even able to challenge Daniel Tammet, the 26-year-old subject of the documentary BRAINMAN. The author suspects that Daniel uses memory techniques to achieve such feats as are featured in the film, and tells him so to his face, after uncovering some history under aliases, including a stint as a “psychic.” (Professional “mentalists” do not, of course, read minds, but also use techniques which can be taught and learned.) Mr. Foer emphasizes that the fact that Daniel may indeed not be a savant, gifted with prodigious mental abilities at a sudden random event, does not diminish his genuine talent for constructing his own memory palaces, or whatever technique he uses (they are constantly being created and refined by Memory Championship competitors). However he does it, Daniel is impressive just the same.
Mr. Foer does not overlook the absurdity of memorizing long lists of meaningless numbers, or wearing earmuffs, a helmet and dark glasses to help him concentrate (the effects of his yearlong obsession on his long-suffering parents and girlfriend are hysterically funny, as is our look into the eccentric community of mental athletes). This book takes what is, let’s face it, a trivial subject to most of us, and makes the implications of the Memory Championship as profound a comment on our society as they can be. Knowing about the use of mnemonics reveals an important secret, but as any sleight-of-hand artist can tell you — and now too Mr. Foer — without those hundreds of hours of practice afterward, just knowing means nothing.