Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review of 'Moonwalking with Einstein'

You've heard of ars technica: have you heard about ars memorativa, the art of memory?

Years ago I played Quake quite a lot. I'm sure I did other things in the winter of '96-'97 as well - indeed I have photos to prove it - but one of the strongest memories I have of that time is of happily fragging and blasting my way through over 30 separate maps (or dungeons). When I finally finished it there were the expansion packs 'Scourge of Armagon' and 'Dissolution of Eternity' to get through. When I was finished those I downloaded more maps made by fans just to keep playing.

Long after I finished playing that influential and venerable first-person shooter I noticed something strange: I could remember my way around the individual dungeons much better than I thought I would have done given how fleeting my time in them had been. Vivid memories of hallways and vistas would return, unbidden, in a way that simply never happens with words, or other non-visual material that you might want to remember. I didn't know it at the time, but these dungeons were at the basement of a memory palace.

The art of memory, including the memory palace, are ancient techniques featured in Moonwalking with Einstein, which gives you on the one hand practical advice about how to remember things better and on the other an intriguing historical run through, right back to the ancient Greeks, of the history of remembering things. The basics haven't changed much: the art is to "make remembering things more memorable" by using our superior ability to recall locations, and also to associate important things we want to remember with unforgettable, often raunchy, images, which are hard to dislodge. "The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don't remember all types of information equally well." We're good at pictures, and terrible at numbers. And what we're trying to remember matters: "We don't remember isolated facts, we remember things in context." Therefore, if you can imbue what you're trying to remember with meaning, be it silly or smutty, then you will remember it better.

At the same time, there is plenty of good factual material here: you'll find out the difference between declarative and non-declarative (or, explicit and implicit) memory, and within declarative memories, semantic and episodic memories. If you remember it all, of course.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
View all my reviews

But this book is probably most memorable for the remarkable feat of self-help that Foer brings about. He keeps saying that these memory tricks, even the most spectacular feats of mental athleticism, such as are seen every time there is a competition between the world's best, are just techniques that anyone can learn. "We all have remarkable capacities asleep inside of us, if only we bothered ourselves to awaken them." Apparently so.

Of particular interest to me in the book was Ed Cooke, one of the creators of, a site which aims to make learning fun. Indeed when I see my 8-year old kid using it to learn a language, or the countries of the world, I see a kid tricked into doing extra homework and loving it. The friendship Foer makes with Cooke and the role played by the latter in mentoring the former makes this book different to your usual journalistic reportage of such-and-such a scientific or societal phenomenon. But that's not the half of it. In 2006 Foer actually won the very contest, the US Memory Championship, that he covered in the first place that got him interested in the whole ars memorativa shenanigans! It's a great moment, by the way, when he reveals this astonishing fact in his TED talk.

This is a "mem" I made on Memrise for a word I came across in one of the Greek courses I'm doing. You can see the reasoning here: if you come across the word ασφαλώς and hope to remember it without making a mnemonic, well, you might just do so. But since the ancient Greeks, fittingly, we know that associations and images help us remember stuff.

Actually, I picked that particular mem for another reason as well. If you're thinking, and I know you are, that the "ass" part of that word is particularly suggestible of a ... certain genre of association, then you're right. If I was to make a memory association capitalising on the saucy overtones of the "ass" part of the word (and in this case I could keep going and get "phallus" out of the second part) I could create a lewd scenario involving sodomy, and that would be actually win the approval of any self-respecting memory expert. That's because the dirtier the memory palace, the better. It's long been recognised that the saltier the images used to associate with concepts, the stickier they are. For obvious reasons, a site like Memrise sadly can't promote that particular technique. Some early memory learning proponents centuries past had no such scruples and for promoting this particular heuristicthey got into trouble with the church, drearily predictably.

Don't believe me that you should actually remember your friends' birthdays by creating images of them having sex with animals? You should read Moonwalking with Einstein.