Review: Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

Joshua Foer, brother of a fiction writer whom I frequently mix up with Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, was writing a story about the world memory champions, people who can memorize the order of multiple decks of cards in five minutes, people who can repeat with perfect accuracy lists of thousands of complicated, unrelated items. Without exception, the memory champions he speaks to assure him that they are not special, their brains are not exceptional, and that anyone could learn to be a memory champion. Foer decides to put this theory to the test by seeing if he can become the US memory champion in the following year’s championship.

If you are interested in cognitive psychology and neurobiology and just anything to do with brains (and I am), much of the incidental material in Moonwalking with Einstein will already be familiar to you. For example, this thing about sexing chicks: It is incredibly difficult to sex baby chickens, because in many cases there are no clearly describable differences between male chicks and female chicks. But people who sex chicks for a living eventually reach a point at which they do it accurately over 95% of the time. They can’t say how they know the sex of the chick. They just know. Human brains!

On the other hand, I really enjoy reading about weird subcultures, and the weird subculture of memory champions was no exception. Foer writes engagingly about the two championships he attends, at which world-class memory experts may freeze on the fifth card in the pack, and Americans ruefully admit that other countries are better at memory than America is. I had not previously heard of “memory palaces”, the technique everybody uses for remembering a series of things, and that was an interesting thing. Basically you call to mind a space with which you are very familiar — say, the house where you grew up — then populate it with images of the items you are trying to remember. Then to recall them, you take a mental stroll through your childhood home, and there you will see all the stuff you’ve put there. Cool, eh?

You could read this book and decide to become a memory champion your own damn self, because the memory champions are telling the truth: It’s not about having a special brain. It’s just about practicing a lot. What I discovered while reading Moonwalking with Einstein is that writing lists is just not onerous enough to make it worthwhile to practice being a memory champion for two hours a day. Much in the same way that being awesome at cooking is not worth practicing that for two hours.

Foer includes a chapter about a British man called Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant whose abilities Foer doubts. I’m not sure, really, what place this chapter has in this book — it seemed a bit out of left field — but nevertheless, it was interesting. Foer believes that Daniel does not really have the perfect memory he claims, that he is using the same memory tricks Foer himself uses. It was a weird little nonsequitur of a chapter but I still am a fan of reading about weird subcultures and unusual people, and so I enjoyed it a lot.

Well, that’s about all I have to say. Memory palaces. Americans are not good at memory compared to citizens of other countries. I am too lazy to practice things. Sexing chicks & other stuff I already knew about from having a crush on cognitive psychology. All in all, Moonwalking with Einstein was not substantive enough for the circumstances in which I read it, which were that I missed the 3:30 bus to the airport by one minute and had to sit in the very, very cold bus station for an hour waiting for the next bus. And then once I was on the bus, I was petrified that I would miss the airport stop and end up being dropped off somewhere in the wilds of Westchester and not be able to get to the airport EVER. And once I was at the airport I was afraid they would bump me off of my very full flight and I would not be able to reach my destination in time.

…Yes, I am a stressy traveler. Why do you ask?

Other reviews are here! Oh, and in case you do not already know about RadioLab, can I take this opportunity to suggest that you check them out? Their show on memory and forgetting is here, dealing with some of the same issues Joshua Foer raises, and I love them so so much. RadioLab is made out of happiness and fascination.