Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the pioneers and founding fathers of experimental psychology.  What makes him a far more distinct person to remember, though, is the following: In the late 19th century, Ebbinghaus sat in his dusty basement for weeks on end, studying himself by investigating how he memorized endless amounts of meaningless syllables (e.g., KAV, LUK, etc.). Just think of it - what a tedious business!  He conducted this bizarre self-experiment because he wanted to understand how human memory works (and because modern psychology wasn’t invented yet).

In the last hundred years, the methods of experimental psychology advanced profoundly. One clear advantage of this development is that people no longer have to subject themselves to such strenuous self-experiments like that of Ebbinghaus to learn something about their memory. However, when reading “Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything” by Joshua Foer, I was rather surprised to find out that, apparently, some people still commit themselves to such tasks – and I kept reading to know why.

In an attempt to find “the world’s smartest person”, Foer ends up as a visitor at the USA Memory Championship whose contestants easily memorize 250 random digits in under five minutes and are able to learn the order of a shuffled card deck in less than two. However, when Foer asks some of the contestants about their “savant skills”, all of them point out that their memory is in fact “quite average” and that their superior performance is the product of “simple” memory training techniques – which can be learned by anyone. Fuelled by this, Foer starts his own Ebbinghausian self-experiment when he decides to become a “mental athlete” himself. Coached by one of the contestants, Foer begins to train his memory to take part in the oncoming USA Memory Championship.

 Moonwalking with Einstein is many books in one: It is not only the autobiographical report of Foer’s experiences during his year of memory training which by itself is very entertaining and worth reading due to Foer’s excellent story telling gift. This book also provides a well-researched and accurate account on the nature and operation of human memory from a scientific point of view, for instance by presenting several famous case studies of patients with “abnormal” memories to highlight the up- and downsides of having an “average” memory (Chapters 2, 3, and 4). In a way, this book is also a kind of a “how-to” manual on learning (Chapter 5) and improving (Chapters 6, and 7) mnemonic techniques. That is, after reading this book, you will know how to use the “method of loci”, i.e., the art of elaborative encoding through visual imagery and spatial memory to store information more efficiently. Eventually, Moonwalking with Einstein is a witty and observant portrait of the eccentric, yet lovingly geeky scene of “mental athletes”, who despite their vast memory skills defy to do more useful things with their brains thanstudying thousands digits of pi.

To my mind, Moonwalking with Einstein is a well-written, many-faceted and entertaining book. It is easy to read but also full of facts and information and is thus perfectly balanced between both of these extremes.  Joshua Foer demonstrates a great openness, dedication, and admiration towards the strange (and at times bizarre) persons he encounters during his year of preparation for the USA Memory Championship. Still, he manages to keep a critical distance and frequently reflects on the actual utility and applicability of mnemonic techniques “in the real world” in which information only rarely comes in easy-to-remember list-format and all sorts of devices (post-its, cell phones, books, computers) handle the task of remembering for us. Another thing that I really liked about this book is that Foer is very keen on adopting and providing different angles and perspectives on the topics he discusses, so that you as a reader can actually make up your own mind. This becomes most apparent in Chapter 10, in which he controversially elaborates on the issue whether Daniel Tammet,  diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and math savant who is also known as “The Boy with the Incredible Brain”, is in fact a trained mnemonic.

If you are interested in psychology and in particular in memory, you should definitely read this book. If you are a trained psychologist, some aspects of the book might not be completely new to you (as for instance the famous clinical case studies or conceptualizations about working memory). However, this by no means diminishes the overall reading experience. Ultimately, Foer succeeds in providing a compelling book about a topic of central interest to all of us – after all, “our memories make us who we are” (p. 270).

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