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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

To Improve Memory, Go 'Moonwalking With Einstein'

Joshua Foer explores 'The Art and Science of Remembering Everything'

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Forgetting is easy. But not forgetting lies in a curious and complex place, journalist Joshua Foer tells us in Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin), a beguiling exploration of the manifold aspects of memory and memorizing.

On average, Foer writes, people spend about 40 days a year compensating for things they have forgotten. On that score he counts himself average, noting for example that, like most of us, he immediately forgets all but the barest threads of books he has just read with enjoyment.

And so he asks: How did we forget to remember? Once memory was everything, and everything was memorized. Now memorizing is disdained as a waste of time and we "externalize" our memories into books and other receptacles.

Once books were a new invention and were read slowly and deeply as aids to memory rather than as replacements for it. Now we read radically differently, prizing quantity and speed over quality.

So the author spent a year "trying to train my memory, and also trying to understand it—its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential." He ended up with this inspired and well-written debut book about not just memorization, but about what it means to be educated and the best way to become so, about expertise in general, and about the not-so-hidden "secrets" of acquiring skills.

He also ended up as winner of the USA Memory Championship. This after plunging into the somewhat geeky, and mostly male, subculture of competitive memorizers—or, as they refer to themselves, "mental athletes."

There he learns techniques by which nearly everyone can dramatically improve his or her memory: Facts to be memorized are converted into vivid images that are stored in "memory palaces" for recall when needed. It is an exercise requiring imagination, creativity and, perhaps above all, perseverance.

Along the way he comes across fascinating individuals and compelling concepts. In San Diego he meets the "Most Forgetful Man in the World," a retiree known as "EP" whose memory was eaten away by a virus during an illness in 1992. Since then EP has immediately forgotten everything that has happened to him. He forgets that he forgets, living in an eternal present where he sometimes eats breakfast several times a day.

He meets Gordon Bell, a 73-year-old San Francisco-based Microsoft computer scientist. Bell has constructed a digital "surrogate memory" through which he records, via miniature cameras and recorders and other devices, everything in his life. Foer discovers, too, that "memory is like a spider web that catches new information." Which is to say, the more we remember, the more we remember.

Oddly, he does not cover the rare individuals with phenomenal autobiographical memories that allow them to remember every day of their lives. This omission is curious, as they have been much in the news of late.

One surprise is his evaluation of Daniel Tammet as at least a partial fake. Tammet, the British prodigious savant, is the subject of the widely broadcast documentary Brainman and author of a best-selling memoir. While acknowledging that Tammet possesses extremely extraordinary mental powers, Foer believes that much of his memory capacity is not innate, but has been learned in the same way that other memorizers have learned.

After the year of intense training, Foer found that his "working memory" was still limited. In practical terms, what it came down to is the old saw that practice makes perfect, that with focus, motivation and time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.

The essential lesson he draws from his project is to remain alertly mindful of the world around us, for "we're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories."