Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

“An instant bestseller that is poised to become a classic, Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author’s own mind, this is an electrifying work of journalism that reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.” ~ Summary from Amazon

My notes:

History of memory:

  • Memory used to be the root of all culture, but we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids – a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.
  • Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.
  • The average person squanders about 40 days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten.
  • Our ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers, or word-for-word instructions from their bosses, or the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party… What our early human and hominid ancestors did need to remember was where to find food and resources, and the route home, and which plants were edible and which were poisonous.
  • Rhetorica ad Herennium (82 B.C.) – only complete discussion of memory techniques invented by Simonides.
  • A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge.
  • “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax is worth a thousand in the stacks” ~ Jan Luyken
  • Augustine was said to be so steeped in the Psalms that they, as much as Latin itself, comprised the principle language in which he wrote.
  • Learning to memorize text is worth doing not because it’s easy but b/c it’s hard.
  • We’ve supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches.
  • “The whole usefulness of education consists only in the memory of it” ~ Hugh St. Victor

Memory techniques:

  • The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t remember all types of info equally well. As exceptional as we are at remembering visual imagery, we’re terrible at remembering other kinds of info, like lists or numbers.
  • The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at holding on to and to transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.
  • All one has to do is to convert something unmemorable into a series of engrossing visual images & mentally arrange them within an imagined space.
  • Artificial memory – the software you run on your hardware – has 2 basic components: images & places.
  • Memory palace
  • Very important to remember the image multisensorily – the more associative hooks a new piece of info has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory. The funnier & more bizzare the better. It takes great creativity.
  • MAJOR SYSTEM – converting numbers into phonetic sounds.
  • PAO (Person-Action-Object) – every 2 digit number of 00 to 00 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object.

Stages of development:

  1. Cognitive stage – you’re intellectualizing the task & discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently.
  2. Associative stage – you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient.
  3. Autonomous stage – when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task & you’re basically running on autopilot.

–> OK Plateau – the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

–> *** What separates the experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine = deliberate practice. They develop strategies consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing 3 things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant & immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

–> Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

–> When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.

–> To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes = practice failing.

–> Put yourself in the mind of someone far more competent at the task you’re trying to master, and try to figure out how that person works through problems. ** Benjamin Franklin example = he would read essays & try to reconstruct the author’s arguments according to Franklin’s own logic then compare.

–> Example: force yourself to type 10-20% faster than your comfort pace & allow yourself to make mistakes.

Our brain:

  • The three-pound mass balanced atop our spines is made up of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of 5 to 10 thousand synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed.
  • The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception – some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web.
  • The brain is a mutable organ, capable – within limits – of reorganizing itself and readapting to new kinds of sensory input, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.
  • The brain is a costly organ. Though it accounts for only 2% of the body’s mass it uses up 1/5 of all oxygen we breathe, and it’s where a quarter of all our glucose gets burned.

How to memorize:

  • Baker-baker paradox – the person who is told the man’s profession is much more likely to remember it than the person was given his surname.  –> The key to memory is turning Bakers into bakers, Reagans into ray guns, etc.
  • Magical # 7 +/- 2 = paper by George Miller discovering that our ability to process info & make decisions in the world is limited by a fundamental constraint – we can only think about roughly seven things at a time. When a new thought or perception enters our head, it doesn’t immediately get stashed away in long-term memory. Rather, it exists in a temporary limbo, the “working memory” that sticks in our mind for a short time.
  • “The brain is like a muscle and memory training is a form of mental workout. Over time, like any form of exercise, it’ll make the brain fitter, quicker, and more nimble.
  • We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.
  • Ribot’s Law = each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.
  • The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized.
  • When information goes “in one ear and out the other,” it’s often b/c it doesn’t have anything to stick to.

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