Mental Athlete Joshua Foer on Memory and Moonwalking

Gillian Reagan | March 17th, 2011

Freelance science journalist Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, is the kind of non-fiction work that gets people talking. It certainly did back in November 2005, when Foer, the youngest of the literary clan of Foer brothers, got a book contract for $1.2 million and a subsequent film option. On March 15, at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street and Broadway in New York, people gathering for Foer’s reading of the book were seemingly ignorant of the book contract, or at least they didn’t talk about it. They were, rather, excited to hear Foer’s quest to train for the U.S. Memory Championship, which takes place each spring in New York. He won the competition in 2006.

“What have you memorized?” said a man in his 40s sitting next to me. He had read the book and recited a few names of the bones in the skull, showing off his new-found skills. A woman with Cruella de Vil hair style — lightning white in a blunt cut — admitted she hadn’t finished the book yet, and spent a good five minutes fishing through her purse, wool coat and even her husband’s coat, looking for her glasses, before realizing they were on her head. A bespectacled man who looked to be in his 50s — Nike running sneakers, zip-up nylon sweater — arrived an hour before the reading, and kept calling his girlfriend, reminding her of the event and where he had saved her a seat. Perhaps she forgot what time they were supposed to meet.

At the reading, Foer insists that Moonwalking with Einstein isn’t a self-help book. It isn’t. It’s a breezy, accessible read that allows us into this young reporter’s adventures — and thinking process — as he improves his memory, studies ancient memory techniques and meets wonderful characters from all over the world with fascinating brains. We discover along with him how memory works, why it sometimes doesn’t work, and what its potential might be.

What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes 50 cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television.

Foer began his quest in 2005 as a Slate journalist, attending the U.S. Memory Championship in 2005. There, the contestants told him there was nothing special about their brains: They just learned a bunch of tricks to help them do things like memorize a deck of cards or recite an entire poem by heart. Outside the competition, Foer met Ed Cooke, one of Britain’s best trained memories, who eventually became his coach.

“He was smoking a cigarette and he said, ‘You’re a journalist, do you know Britney Spears?’ Foer recalled at the Barnes & Noble reading.

‘I was like, no, I don’t know Britney Spears.’

‘I’d really like to teach Britney Spears how to memorize a deck of cards on U.S. television. It’ll prove to the world that anybody can do it.’

‘Well, I don’t know Britney Spears, but maybe you could start with me. You have to start somewhere.’” And so off Foer went: 23, curious, and geeky.

Foer used techniques developed in around 477 B.C. by Greek poet Simonides, building “memory palaces” full of scenery and characters to help people remember poems and lists. The practice was ingrained in classical education until the printing press was invented.

Why memorize when books and, today, the Internet and our phones, could hold information for us? Poetry and novel memorization wasn’t just an educational pursuit to philosophers. It informed personality — its characters, their struggles, and the lessons they learned, became ingrained in hearts and souls, and could inform a person’s decision-making. It would make them better people.

Today, reading takes all kinds of forms and some argue the text simply flies from people’s minds — never informing them since they are on to the next piece of text without a second thought.

In his book, Tony Buzan, a kind of guru of the mind, tells Foer: “The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training. What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes 50 cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television.”

How can we possibly store all of the novels, magazine articles, emails, text messages and Twitter tweets in our minds? Does today’s reading make us better people?

Foer doesn’t have an answer or a concrete solution in his book. It’s a highly enjoyable read, but ultimately has a sad ending, because of this fact.

He writes that although all kinds of memory techniques can help competitors recite hundreds of numbers in pi, they don’t necessarily help people remember why they went to the fridge, or where they parked their car or when their wife’s birthday is. It doesn’t solve more serious conditions like Alzheimer’s. But it can teach a person to remember to remember.

Foer writes: “If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.” So that is to say, savor every moment in life, and maybe re-visit a few of those beloved characters and stories long forgotten on your bookshelf.

When the man sitting next to me at the reading asked what I memorized, I told him, “I’m not sure yet, I’ll have to re-read the book.”