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Joshua Foer (2012), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, London: Penguin

Joshua Foer (2012), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, London: Penguin, 320pp
ISBN: 978-0141032139 (paperback)

Review by Martin A. Conway[1], Department of Psychology, City University London

Everybody believes they have a bad memory. But by definition most people have an average memory: it's completely normal to forget one or two items when shopping, someone's name (you only need to worry when you can't remember your own), where you parked before you went shopping, and so on. The list of everyday memory lapses is legion. You don't need special training or whizzy memory techniques to overcome these normal aspects of memory, as Foer pointedly notes in this excellent and entertaining book on mnemonics. All you need to do is write the items down (and, of course, remember to take the list with you), or share what needs to be remembered with someone else. Indeed, as a businessman once pointed out to me after I gave a talk on mnemonics to a business organisation, the best aid to memory he'd ever encountered was called a secretary.

When students ask me how they can improve their memory my advice is: work harder. And indeed that is what most memory techniques, in roundabout ways, get you to do. In fact I have a senior colleague (a world-leading memory researcher) who swears by tying a knot in his handkerchief. Which is fine, I guess, if you happen to have one. If I'm in the mood I sometimes tell my students an anecdote about a previous student, one of the brightest I'd ever encountered. During her final examination she sat, uncharacteristically, staring blankly into space so I asked her what was wrong. She replied that she'd used the memory techniques we had been studying in order to compress her revision notes into half a page of keywords, then into ten words, and then a single word. The problem was, she now couldn't remember the one all-important word. 'What nonsense!' I said. 'Yes!' she exclaimed, 'that was it!' and she started writing.

Well, as Joshua Foer superbly demonstrates in this engaging and witty book, such techniques are not nonsense in the sense that they don't work; in fact, they are rather good for memorising what essentially is nonsense: very long lists of relatively meaningless material. The sort of lists that feature in the World Memory Championships, which Foer trained himself to enter and in which he did commendably well. But most commendable of all was that he came to realise that memory is not about memorising lists: instead it is about having an identity, recalling meaningful things, and being able to share the past with others in socially meaningful ways. Indeed, Foer, during the course of his well-presented research, encountered and came to understand what I term the modern view of human memory. Memory is about having a personal past and socially adapted self, and not about remembering minutiae such as, for example, all the names and numbers in a telephone book. Why bother? It's much easier to dial 118. Of course, one might define oneself as being a memory expert, a mnemonist, which is harmless enough. Although, as Foer notes, not always so. Nonetheless, dangerous or not, this jaunt into the world of memory champions and championships and the often shady characters and mentors who inhabit that world is a lot of fun, a good read, and educational too. What more could one ask for from a popular book on human memory?

Review by Daniel Kilov[2], Macquarie University

In his captivating book Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer details his journey from journalist to memory master during his research for an article on the US memory championships. Moonwalking with Einstein explores the world of memory, setting out on a journey that takes the reader from the bizarre world of memory sports through the relevant cognitive science and all the way back to Ancient Greece to the birth of mnemonic techniques. This is a popular, rather than scholarly, book, and the historical and scientific details are gleaned from Foer's journalistic investigations, rather than original research.

There was a time, Foer reflects, when it was more practical to remember information than it was to record it. In ancient times, recording information was a lengthy and expensive process. Consequently, students in the ancient world were taught, 'not just what to remember, but how to remember it' (p. 96) using mnemonic techniques referred to collectively as the Art of Memory. The techniques of the Art of Memory all revolve around the composition of elaborate and colourful mental images. In one instance, for example, Foer memorises a shopping list by conjuring mental images of Claudia Schiffer swimming in cottage cheese and anthropomorphic bottles of wine getting into a punch-up.

During the Middle Ages, books were not considered substitutes for memorisation but rather as aides-memoire. Books of this period were written without punctuation or spacing, in an unending stream known as scripto continua (p. 139). Without punctuation or paragraphs, page numbers or an index, referring to a work written in scripto continua required an intimate knowledge of the text. As Foer puts it, these works existed 'not to hold its contents externally, but rather to help its reader navigate its contents internally' (p. 141). By the time of the Enlightenment, improvements in technologies designed to externalise memory resulted in a decline in the popularity and practice of mnemonic techniques.

Even during the Enlightenment the idea of using memory techniques to preserve information was beginning to appear outdated; how much more so now in the age of smartphones and smarter search engines? Foer explores the idea that we might be 'moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all-encompassing external memories' (p. 155) by introducing us to an engineer named Gordon Bell, who has taken to recording everything he does via a miniature camera he designed to act as a surrogate memory. Bell can search through his recorded 'memories' using customised software to 'recall' particular details which are all downloaded and stored on his computer.

Bell's internal and external memories do not yet interface seamlessly; his external memory does not allow for the same speed and ease of recall as his biological memory, yet his project raises crucial questions about the role and nature of our memories. It is these questions that motivate Moonwalking with Einstein.

Given that it is so easy to relegate so many of our memory tasks to external devices, what is the point of remembering anything? For a person who has invested hundreds of hours in developing his memory (by the end of his journey, Foer is capable of memorising a deck of shuffled playing cards in one minute and forty seconds) Foer's answer is a surprising one.

Foer's answer as to why we ought to train our biological memories rather than rely on external systems is not, as one might expect, inspired by any of the prodigious memorisers he introduces us to in the course of his book. Instead, His most compelling argument is one he 'received unwittingly from EP', an amnesiac who is entirely unable to form new memories and 'whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people' (p. 268). Without his memory, Foer writes, 'EP has fallen out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate' (p. 74).

For Foer, to be human is to remember. Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find humour in the world and to share in a common culture are all essentially human acts that depend on memory (p. 269).

Foer deals a blow to the fantasy of cultivating a faultless memory (a fantasy which motivated his entry into the world of memory sports) but does so with such sensitivity and enthusiasm for his topic that one comes away feeling inspired rather than disillusioned. His argument that memory is the seat of identity is compelling, but does not, on its own, clearly justify the training of memory. Foer's experiences, however, provide another argument for practising the ancient techniques of the Art of Memory: memory training is fun. The mental images that Foer and his fellow mnemonists create are playful and the process of remembering is as much an exercise in creativity as it is in fidelity. The final lesson of Moonwalking is that we ought to approach our memories with a sense of playfulness, because that is how they work best.




[1] Professor Martin A. Conway currently works at City University London in the Department of Psychology, which he joined in 2012 after appointments as Department Head at the Universities of Leeds, Durham and Bristol. Professor Conway's research into human memory has spanned over three decades. In addition to publishing papers, books and articles on various topics within memory studies, he has made theoretical contributions to the discipline through his work on autobiographical memory and memory for the experiences and knowledge of our lives.

[2] Daniel Kilov recently graduated with Honours in Philosophy from Macquarie University. Prior to that he was a student at Monash University and in 2009 was awarded the Monash Achievement Award for his studies in the Bachelor of Arts. Daniel's academic interest in memory is fuelled by his experiences as a memory athlete. He was the silver medallist at the 2011 and 2012 Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for the memorisation of abstract shapes.


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Conway, M. A. OR Kilov, D. (2013), 'Book Review: Joshua Foer (2012), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.