Summary of moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

September 29th, 2019

Chapter 1 - The Smartest Man is hard to find

Josh a journalist, covering the 2005 US Memory champs meets Ed Cooke, an English memory grandmaster who tells him a little more about the unknown world of ‘mental athletes’.

Basically begins to realise that people with photographic/rain man type memories probably don’t exist, or very very few at least. Even the best ‘mental athletes’ and the most intelligent people still have average memories. The big difference is that they are far better at using their brains effectively. A skill that Ed Cooke insists anyone can achieve with a little training.

First introduced to an ancient memory technique known as ‘The Memory Palace.’ A 2,500 year old mnemonic technique. A memory was so much more vital many years ago and your memory was a fundamental tool. Many thought that the need for a good memory became redundant once books and media was mass and digitally produced.

Tony Buzan thinks otherwise. He is the leader of the renaissance of memory training and founded the memory championships in 1991. He has made a fortune world wide selling his self help books as well as franchising his memory training to consultants all over the world. Buzan declares that people have gotten sloppy with their minds. People assume a decline in memory is a natural decline, however Buzan argues that it’s more because people don’t keep exercise their brains like you would a muscle you wanted to keep in shape.

Chapter 2 - The Man who remembered too much

After wrapping up his report on the US Memory champs, Josh goes to see Ed lecture at a local school in NYC. Here he discovers how as humans we have an incredible capacity to remember images and spaces. Ed does a basic test on students but larger tests have revealed we’re able to remember over 80% of over 10,000 images we’ve seen when compared to ones we have not. Our memories are in fact incredibly good, we just often lack the right que to hook out the details.

The biggest problem we face when accessing our memories is that they are incredibly complex non-linear objects. We can’t search them using an index, we have to use cues or associations to track down what we want.

This complexity is the very reason we often forget people's names as easily. Eds easy technique is a great way to remember people's names. As we have such good memories for images, you should convert people's names into a visual object, something so vivid and memorable you’ll be able to associate it with someones name and remember it every time. For example, to remember Ed Cooke, you could think of sleeping in a bed (Ed) eating loads of Cookies (Cooke).

The reason for this is the Baker/baker paradox. It’s much easier for us to remember that someone is a ‘baker’ rather than their name is Baker. Why? Because when we think of a ‘baker’ we immediately match it to images of baking, bread, smells all images that stick in our mind. We can put things into context. When we think of the name baker, we don’t associate it with images, it isn’t in context.

Herman Ebbingham, a german psychologist came up with a term called the ‘curve of forgetting’. Initially you forget a lot of things but after a while your memory stabilises and stays that way. Again, reinforcing the idea that a lot of stuff is still stored somewhere we just can’t necessarily access it that easily.

Chapter 3 - Expert/Experts

Chicken sexters, an interesting career path! Wasn’t until the 1920s that people figured out a way to tell the difference between male and female chickens at an early age. This was very costly to the industry. Males chickens were useless, don’t lay eggs. Discovery was made an revolutionised the hatchery industry. People who did the checks called chicken sexters. Was a 2 year course to qualify and only 5-10% passed! Interesting thing about them is that they can’t really explain how they know, it’s basically pattern recognition and memory.

Lead us onto the Human Performance labs (HPL) and a psychologist called Ericsson who tests people's memories. Josh is to become his research subject on his quest to improve his memory and compete at the US champs. HPL carry out various tests on experts such as SWAT teams etc. For example, when testing experienced SWAT team members in comparison with trainees from the police academy they noticed an incredible difference in the way they acted in different scenarios. SWAT team members, similar to chiecken sexters have a similar skill, an instinct that allows them to home in on important information and make a decision.

Humans on average can only ever think of about 7 things (+ or - 2) at any one time. Whilst in some ways frustrating, it’s also essential else we’d be drowning in so much irrelevant information.

Chunking is something that a lot of people do to help with memory but probably don’t realise it. Chunking is the reason that credit card and phone numbers are split up the way they are. It’s much easier for our brains to remember longer streams of information when it’s broken up.

In some ways you can compare world class chess players to chicken sexters. In terms of pattern recognition anyway. People assume that world class chess players are way above the average in terms of intelligence. However, tests have revealed that most are just average but they have seen 1000s of board placements are immediately spot familiar patterns. Similar to chicken sexters.

The important thing about all is that we don’t remember isolated things but we do remember stuff when we can put it into context, when we are an expert on the subject.

Chapter 4 - The most forgetful man in the world

“The more we pack out our time with memories, the slower time seems to fly by” Ed Cooke. Not sure I agree but I think the point is that times might fly by when you’re doing lots of stuff but when you’re able to relate back and remember it you feel like you have done so much and time has ‘expanded’.

With this in mind, it’s important to change routines, experience exotic holidays and basically just do different things that will create long lasting memories to stretch out psychological time.

Lots of debate over the details but essentially we have 2 types of memory systems. Declarative and nondeclarative. Declarative memories are things you are aware you remember. Nondeclarative are things that you know subconsciously like how to ride a bike or how to swim.

Declarative memories can be broken down further into semantic memories (facts and figures) and episodic memories (memories of experiences)

Chapter 5 - The Memory Palace

Humans have an incredible awareness of spaces. This makes sense because 1000’s of years ago we absolutely had to know where we where, recognise how to get back, find food, what to eat/not to eat. All essential for survival.

The underlying point to this is that in order to have a good memory, we need to take the things we want to memories and convert them into things our brains are incredibly good at remembering. Images and spaces. If you went to someone's house that you had never been to before, after 5 minutes of walking around you’d be able to tell anyone about the layout, spaces, dimensions for months, probably years.

Simple example described by Ed Cooke of the Memory palace in its simplest form. What you need to do is create lots of memory palaces in order to store the information. The best memory palaces are things like the house you grew up. Why? Because you will still remember where everything is, the spaces, the doors, the furniture. You can then place images of the things you need to remember in all these spaces, thus making it much easier to remember and visualise. Memory palaces don’t have to be just buildings, might be train stops or routes anything even something like a tube map if you know it!

Chapter 7 - The End of Remembering

When ‘writing’ was invented by Theuth, it was most rejected due to the negative impact it might have on people's minds. Having a good memory 1000s of years ago was as important as arithmetic for example. The concern was that writing and recording things would make people's minds lazy. It sounds counterintuitive, with the high risk of things being forgotten and mistold. However, 1000’s of years ago the relationship with books and writing was far different than now. The format of writing was very primitive, no punctuation, spaces or upper/lower case. This made reading and writing incredibly difficult. Things were not written as a reference as you couldn’t just look at an index as they didn’t exist. Things were written down in a format that reinforced memory.

Fast forward to today and we are more focussed on reading more rather than the details. It’s what modern life demands. As tools to manage things digital have become better, less emphasis is placed on using our minds to remember things so it’s no surprise that we don’t remember as much as we would of had to years ago. Our approach to reading isn’t usually based on the desire to remember but to consume as much information as possible.

Gordon Bell, a microsoft computer scientist taking the digitalisation of memories to the extreme. He has been working on a project he calls lifelogging which captures every moment of his life in digital format in which he can search back through and find things. The idea is that some day we’ll be synced with external memories to recall pretty much anything we want. Like some kind of google brain without the need for a computer.

Chapter 8 - OK Plateau

People usually hit a plateau in learning anything when the skill they are learning becomes autonomous/comfortable. In a lot of cases this autonomy is helpful as it means you no longer need to consciously remember what you are doing and can consume your mind with other things.

Experts on the other hand, engage in deliberate practice in order to continue improving far more than the average. They engage in high quality practice time rather than repeating the same thing over and over comfortably. This deliberate practice ensures that you make mistakes and have the ability to learn from them.

So, the secret to improving is to always retain a degree of conscious control over what you are doing. For example teaching yourself to type, force yourself to go faster than you are comfortable rather than just practising at the same speed multiple times, will be a far better use of your time. For some reason as humans we don’t like failing though!

Good example of surgeons vs mammographers. Surgeons actually get better over the years because they get instant feedback about each person they perform surgery on and must learn from their mistakes. They are almost always practicing deliberately. On the other hand, test show that Mammographers actually sometimes get less accurate over the years. They stop ‘deliberate practice’ as whilst they are doing the job they don’t get the feedback about how well they did weeks, months or if at all and can’t remember the specific details of the case and therefore have no way of learning from their mistakes.

The other point is that a lot of the barriers for improvement are psychological. Once they are broken down it opens up the door for even more improvement. Take the 4 minute mile, once Roger Bannister broke the record, lots of people followed the same achievement. Once Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, lots of people started beating Mike Tyson.

Chapter 9 - The Talented tenth

Mathews a Buzan disciple and an American history teacher shows how he uses memory training techniques in the ‘real world’. The talented tenth is the name of his class that he teaches. Called this because 9/10 of the students in the neighbourhood are below average for reading and match. His classes have passed their exams with high scores for the past 4 years and Mathews has won 2 citywide teacher of the year awards.

The question is though, what does it mean to be intelligent? Buzan “Students need to learn how to learn. First you teach them how to learn, then you teach them what to learn”

Formal education system basically came from the military. Years ago the most educationally deprived people were sent into the army, you didn’t want people who would think for themselves, you needed people who would obey orders. Then when the industrial revolution came, you needed soldiers to work machinery and so the military approach transferred into schools, so that people would take orders and do what they are told. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work in the long term.

What buzan argues about memory is that people assume it is created primarily by ‘rote’. That is to continuously repeat things until they are never forgotten. In fact, memory is an imaginative process and the more creative you can be the better your memory can be. The more creative you are making associations to facts, the more facts and ideas you’ll have at your disposal.

The biggest problem people have with their memories is that when they read or hear something it ‘goes in one ear and out the other’. The real reason for this is because they don’t have anything to attach it to. This is why it’s so important to understand what you are going to get from something you plan to read for example. if you don’t have a basic foundation of understanding of a subject, it’s far harder for that information to stick as you don’t have any context. When reading a book, you should study the book first, understand what you will learn from it before you start even reading it. Baseball study to explain this paradox. Half baseball fanatics, half people who didn’t know about baseball. When asked to remembering things that happened in each innings, the fanatics did really well. They linked it around important game related events. Those who didn’t understand baseball lacked a detailed internal understanding of the game to associated the events with.

Chapter 10 - The little rain man in all of us

Daniel is a ‘subject’ Josh got into touch with after seeing him on the David Letterman show, ‘brainman’. In which he was able to do a number of amazing feats such as recalling ridiculously long random digits and things like that. Basically the idea was that he was a ‘savant’ a ‘rainman’ with incredible natural abiliteis gained after a traumatic epileptic seizure when he was younger.

Ultimately however, it appeared that Daniel was in some ways ‘faking it’ and was in fact a train mental athlete. Josh goes on to suggest therefore that maybe there is no such thing as ‘savants’ or ‘rainmen’. Everyone has that ability they just need to unlock it.

Chapter 11 - The US Memory Championships

After Josh year of training the day has finally arrived for him to compete in the US memory championships. This championships is even covered live on some american tv channel somewhere! Anyway, ultimately he gets the job done. Proves the fact that whilst the american memory champs is supposedly a lower grade than in Europe, a years hard training and ‘anyone’ could compete in them.

Also comes just outside the top 10 in the world memory champs.

By Jonathan Clift, a UX Desginer based in the UK.