I’ve always believed I possessed a good memory, but as my forties progress, and especially since I’ve taken up the amateur theatrical life and the line memorization that comes with it, I’ve had to face the limits of my brain more frequently. So when I saw good reviews for a book about all things memory, I had to give it a try.
A trip to the World Memory Championships in pursuit of a magazine article sends Joshua Foer (brother of the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer) on a year-long memory odyssey in Moonwalking with Einstein.
At competitive memory events, contestants battle to remember the longest strings of random numbers possible, to recite poems word-for-word after an initial reading, and to memorize the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards as quickly as possible (among other events). Apparently American competitors aren’t quite up to world standard, and a cocky young European convinces Foer that with his expert training, Foer could be a real competitor at the next American championship. Curious about the potential of his mind, Joshua begins.
Over the coming year, he participates in studies with memory scientists, meets both gifted savants and sad medical cases with severe memory disabilities, and learns a variety of methods for enhancing the capacity of his memory. He discovers that “photographic” memories are considered a fiction by memory scientists and along the way uncovers the fraudulent claims of one memory expert. He is baptized in the quirky fraternity of competitive memory experts. He learns the ancient technique of the “memory palace,” and other methods that allowed scholars to memorize entire books before modern practices, an overload of information, and contemporary technologies wiped away most of our facility with this ancient intellectual art.
The book culminates as Foer scopes out the competition and puts his obsessive year of hard work to the test at the American championships. To save a little suspense, I won’t tell you whether or not he won, but I will say that Foer explained a few tricks that have made memorization easier for me. Regardless of the strength of your memory, I think you’ll be as fascinated as I was by a prime example of immersive journalism that gives the reader a better understanding of the capacities of the human brain.
Check the WRL catalog for Moonwalking with Einstein