Moonwalking with Einstein - Review. A book on Memory Improvement by Josh Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Anyone sceptical about being able to learn 200 words a day of a new language should read US memory champion Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein. (Or any of the many works, books and courses written by the likes of Tony Buzan, Dominic O’Brien, Dr Bruno Furst, Dr Gruneberg and various other memory experts).

Froer’s initial foray into the art of remembering began with his covering, as a journalist, of the world memory championships. During these contests people converge from around the world to compete at remembering and repeating long sequences of random numbers, dozens of shuffled decks of cards and numerous other tasks.

Foer was surprised to find that every memory expert that he met said that:

  1. none of the competing ‘sages’ had any special gifts, and
  2. that the ability to remember huge numbers of facts can be learned by the average, normal person... and
  3. None claim to have a photographic memory!
  4. And they even doubt that such a thing exists.
Ed the reigning memory champ even challenges Foer to start learning the techniques of remembering, suggesting that with a bit of dedication he could even be competing in the next year’s event. The book describes his journey from sceptic to . . . well . . . a year later US memory champion! And successful author of Moonwalking with Einstein.

This was a guy who, like many of us, would forget where he put his car keys, and could not remember names and faces.

His witty account covers the science of memory and remembering, going into some depth at times, a reflection of his scientific training and bent. In Moonwalking with Einstein he reviews a good deal of the scientific literature.

The ‘journey method’ of remembering long strings of information in sequence is well documented and was learned by yours truly here from a mail order course by Dominic O’Brien. Foer explains (as does O’Brien) that it was the ancient Greeks who are the first to be credited with its ‘discovery’. Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with being the first recorded exponent of the technique.

In ancient times Simonides was fortuitously summonsed from a banquet. Shortly after exiting the building collapsed, entombing and killing all those inside. Simonides was able to tell grieving relatives whether, or not, their loved ones had been at the knees-up. He was able to do this as he could remember a key point which is a fundamental tool in remembering long lists of things . . . and that is . . . where everyone was sitting. i.e. the location of each person.

So became the first recorded instance of using ‘locations’ or ‘loci’ as a powerful tool in the process of trying to remember large amounts of information. And anyone wanting to remembering long lists of anything has used this tool ever since.

His techniques are pretty much in line with what we do at 200 Words a Day, and anyone who ‘gets’ our techniques will already be thoroughly convinced that ‘it works’, and they would greatly enjoy this book.

Visualisation as a Keystone of Remembering Things

As any 'memory expert' knows, a cornerstone to remembering is the use of visualization - creating and remembering ridiculous mental images that help you remember things. Foer's book Moonwalking with Einstein starts with a number of descriptions of some of his mental images. . . some lurid and ridiculous. I shall let you read the book to see who he visualises crapping on who . . . and . . . er . . . I will leave it there.

Most of our followers need no convincing of the efficacy of accelerated language learning techniques and the role that visualisation plays in that process. Nor the longer term over which one can remember new material. We know that numerous students record learning rates of 400, 500, 600, 700+ words a day while learning new words.

What 200 Words a Day exponents will enjoy however is Foer’s description of the memorization process, the history, its science and the many milestone experiments that he describes while recounting his own journey. They will enjoy his in-depth descriptions of techniques that he learned and developed and also the background that went with his learning process.

In Moonwalking with Einstein he discusses how the need for a good memory was a key element of any wise person in ancient times. Sages of old would remember long poems and ballads (like Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad) and recite these to the (less educated) masses. Ancient sages of hundreds of cultures used the same techniques to remember lots of facts:

  • putting things into vivid visualisations . . .
  • and then into a location, to help remember them in sequence.
However this need was diluted, with the advent of the printing press, which did three main things.

  1. It meant that one no longer had to memorize long tracts of a story so that it could be passed on to the next person. One had access to a book.
  2. It meant more people could get access to the writings and teachings of the wise, and the literate.
  3. It meant that you could refer back to the same document without having to dig into your memory (or that of the sage).

In today’s world with the explosion of information, most learning is now based on knowing the broader concepts and knowing where to find details that one needs to use. Most of us read books for the general feel of it and forget most of the contents not long afterwards.

In days of old when a household might have only one book, say a Bible or other such religious text, one memorised vast tracts, readings and proverbs - because there was not so much else to read. Such books were often the primary source of written knowledge.

With more and more books available the importance of a good memory declined.

Even more so now with the computer age, the internet and the ability for billions of people to cheaply store millions of pages of text and imagery.

Hence over the years the teaching of how to memorise things has diminished in schools to the point where there is virtually no formal training in memory improvement techniques in schools or universities.

Foer describes his journey on training his memory and explains, as any 200 Words a Day exponent will know, that an important part of this is the use of visualisation. He also makes the point that dreaming up visualisations (and putting them in a location – a memory palace ) takes a good deal of time and mental effort.

In the 200 Words a Day system we have taken that time and effort away and have provided you with the imagery and visualisations. And given you a system to store them and access them. Of course your OWN MEMORY TRIGGERS will always be the most powerful. In the 200 Words a Day system you can write your own triggers and store them as a NOTE.

Moonwalking with Einstein author goes on to win the US Memory Championships

Foer trains himself for the US Memory Championships, and goes on to win it. He does this with the help of some of the top European memory exponents.

The World Memory Championships were invented by Mr Memory Tony Buzan, probably the most prolific author on Memory Training and memory improvement. I have read a few of his books, and have to say that they all follow the same basic theme. But they are good reading for anyone wanting to improve their memory. Foer interviews Buzan for Moonwalking with Einstein.

The World Memory Championships involve all sorts of timed memory exercises, like remembering sequences of shuffled cards, lists of numbers, remembering lots of names. Foer hilariously explains that, as a spectator event, it falls a little short of most contests ... as it mainly a group of people wearing large earmuffs rubbing their temples, and closing their eyes as they rack their brains.

The Take Away from Moonwalking with Einstein

My view on things like Memory Championships etc is that they are terrific training for people wanting to learn the skill of memorisation, but to me there is little use in remembering the sequences of decks of shuffled cards. Yes I learned those skills, but what can you do with a memory of a stack of cards in your mind? Er . . . Nothing.

It is great for a ‘party trick’ but inherently useless otherwise. You can train yourself to become a card counter and earn a living as a card player . . . but that will only appeal to a small minority.

Why on earth would you care to remember the value of pi to 100 decimal places? What a huge yawn. That is what i found after training myself to a basic level using the techniques taught by various Memory experts, ( .. and as later described in Moonwalking with Einstein.

However one of the greatest uses of memory techniques is to learn and remember the new words of a foreign language. And for those languages so equipped, their genders, and cases etc.

This is one of the greatest uses of memory techniques. You will be able to amass a solid foundation of words and vocabulary in less than a couple of weeks. Of course you have to learn grammar and sentence structure as well . . . but you will have to learn the vocab anyway . . . so why not do it more speedily!!

Foer even quotes the example of a chap who learnt 2000 new words in a day! Yep two thousand words a day of a new language! Wowee!! That is a great one for the sceptics who doubt that people can learn two hundred words a day.

And the DRAWBACKS are also discussed

Foer's writing in Moonwalking with Einstein is very balanced. It reflects his scientific training and mind. He also talks at length about the drawbacks, and difficulties of memory training. Things like:

  • It does take time and effort to construct your visualizations and memory triggers
  • You can still, at times, forget the whereabouts of your glasses and carkeys if you don't make a specific effort to remember them
  • It takes time and effort to construct your memory palaces (when wanting to remember lists in sequence)

Anyone who would like to:

  • speed up their vocabulary learning
  • deepen their ability to remember a word, and/or its gender
  • add some hooks to help them recall a word or phrase . . .
  • improve their memory
  • improve their ability to remember names, faces, events, facts etc
  • clarify any doubts that they have about
. . . will greatly enjoy this book, Mooonwalking with Einstein.

The techniques of the remembering vast amounts of data as described in Moonwalking with Einstein are well known to the world's memory masters.

To sum up the Memory Techniques in Moonwalking with Einstein

  • They do work.
  • Any average, normal person can learn these techniques.
  • One of the best uses of these memory techniques is to accelerate and deepen your foreign language vocabulary learning.
  • In courses which have incorporated such techniques, significant advances can be achieved with foreign language grammar learning - like the 200 Words a Day Italian Grammar Slammer course, where we use tools like the VERB VAN to help you remember sometimes 'difficult' grammar concepts.
  • Using Memory Techniques does take time, because there is quite some work involved in thinking up visualisations - and making them stick etc.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Josh Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein and can recommend it to anyone interested in language learning (of ANY language) and anyone interested in the whole engaging field of memory improvement. Nice work Josh!

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Moonwalking with Einstein.Book review of the book on memory and memorising by Josh Foer. Copyright 2012 ©

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