Moonwalking with Einstein - Review

Thanks to you guys for pointing me to this book. I hadn’t spotted it. Anyway, here’s my take on it, admittedly for a less technical audience than most of you here, so it’s a bit different to Josh’s review here.

Moonwalking with Einstein
The art and science of remembering everything by Joshua Foer
Review by Christopher Miller

Moonwalking with Einstein

Remember when journalists weren’t supposed to become the story? Well this one went to cover the 2005 U.S. Memory Championships, and walked away a year later as the Champion himself. Joshua Foer explains how he was able in such a short time to become a top mental athlete in his book: Moonwalking with Einstein. The book is both a fascinating history lesson in the art of remembering, and a wry look at some of the crazy characters who inhabit the world of performance memory, known as mnemonists. There’s enough detail about the techniques he used to whet appetites, but not so much as to spoil an enjoyable read by turning it into a how-to manual.

All mnemonic systems use associations of some sort. One of the oldest techniques is the “memory palace”, invented some 2,500 years ago. Anyone can be taught its basic principles in just a few minutes. You simply think about a place you know really well, like the home you were brought up in, and imagine each thing you want to remember in a different room or area as you walk round the “palace”. The more you can make the thing you want to remember interact with the environment, the better. So if you are remembering a shopping list, let the butter melt on the table and dribble over the edge all over the carpet, and in the next room, make the cheese chase a mouse all round the room.

Associations work best when emotions and visualisations come together vividly. So the more improbable, funny, colourful, smelly, scary, naughty or stupid, the better. Many adults spontaneously think up sexualised images, and that works really well too.

Some of the more recent developments in mnemonics include PAO, an acronym for person-action-object, which is used for long strings of numbers. Most mental athletes use this for many of their feats, and it takes a lot of preparation and training to assign, visualise and remember a large resource of associations. But this is the system that enabled Josh to memorise a pack of cards in one minute 40 seconds.

Excluding the 33 references to the art of determining the sex of baby chickens, Kindle counts a mere 5 references to “sex” in the book. But most mnemonists that I know lean heavily on all kinds of sex to support mnemonic associations. So the book is relatively restrained. After all, sex is something that most people don’t have to be taught to think about, and it could have lowered the tone of the book. Mind you, there are enough hints, with descriptions like the one of Claudia Schiffer in a tub of cottage cheese, and an earnest discussion of a sixteenth-century moralistic attack on the art of memory.

In his research, Joshua interviewed some truly exceptional people, ranging from brain damaged savants to gifted polymaths, with widely different approaches to hygiene and grooming. For me, these profiles were probably the highlight of the book. They were all geeks; some of them were cuddly, some were spiky and some were more than a little eccentric, But I think many of them recognised the humour in what Josh refers to as an “impressive but ultimately useless” pursuit.

This description may be true, but the same could be said of mountaineering, athletics and any other competitive sport. These guys are inspirational because they are not just extending the boundaries of human achievement, but showing that relatively normal people can extend their own boundaries.

Josh is suspicious of Tony Buzan, who is one of the very few people in the memory world to have made a lot of money. He chastises Tony for saying some downright unbelievable things. I think smart people with strong personalities soon learn that most people don’t dare challenge anything they say, and there’s a great temptation to …er… extrapolate the truth.

But I think Tony deserves more credit for the good things he does well. Firstly, I am happy when a savant or polymath can be commercially successful, because so many are not, and conversely, many successful people have little real talent.

But mostly, Tony is like the interface between the Formula One cars and technology we can use in our everyday cars. He takes “impressive but ultimately useless” mental technology, and makes it usable in schools, the workplace and in everyday home life. As for the hyperbole with which he embellishes everything: I think belief systems are the most significant determinant of success in most people, and if Tony can persuade more people to believe in their own potential, then I think he will have done a good job. A little salesmanship can be forgiven.

When the film comes out (yes, Josh has already sold an option on the film rights to Columbia), I wonder it will be about him or the other characters. Because in the book, there really is the sense that he is like a narrator, wearing a mnemonist’s costume, and having researched his role in the same way that a method actor really gets into a role.

Josh’s memory coach, Ed Cooke, has all the makings of the star of the show, even though he fails to attend the grand finale because he has more important things to do in Australia. Ed is a young English psychologist and grandmaster of memory. To say he is eccentric is the understatement of the century.

I can visualise a wonderful quirky Britishness to the film. There is a noticeable lack of romantic storyline, but audiences will be primed to use their imagination, especially if they can persuade Claudia Schiffer to make a guest appearance.

Moonwalking with Einstein is an endearing account of a journey into geekery. People in the book repeatedly assert that they are just “normal” people, and anyone can do these things. While many of the characters are blatantly far from “normal”, whatever that is, I believe the underlying message is true. Joe Average, possessed with the right motivation and training could indeed achieve memory feats that would seem incredible to most people. The training part is easy: just read Tony Buzan or Dominic O’Brien. But motivation is where most people might stumble. And I know people already who have been inspired by Moonwalking with Einstein.

Thanks for posting the review. I added a link to your review from mine.

About sex, you can see this article (spanish): Sexo y mnemotecnia.