Most people think of memory as a fixed trait. You might be great with faces but terrible with names. Maybe you remember your credit card number, but not your anniversary. And no matter what, your memory is bound to get worse with age.
At the beginning of Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer believed all these things. Then in 2005, a journalism assignment brought him to the annual USA Memory Championship. That’s where Foer discovered that memory is more like a muscle—and like any muscle, it’s capable of growth. Over the course of this book, Foer dedicates his free time to becoming a mental athlete. In other words, he starts hitting the memory gym with the goal of making his brain as buff as possible. His goal? To participate in the following year’s USA Memory Championship.
Under the guidance of a motley crew of memory buffs, Foer embarks on a quest to remember, bringing readers along for what turns out to be a wild ride. In fact, Moonwalking with Einstein was named one of the New York Times Best Books of 2011 and called “absolutely phenomenal” by Bill Gates.
Read on for five key insights from Moonwalking with Einstein. To listen to the audio version of this Book Bite, download the Next Big Idea App today.
1. Be an expert in your field.
The SWAT team officer pulled out his gun and pointed it at the man walking into the school. The man’s shirt bulged out as if it were concealing a bomb. “Freeze! Freeze!” the officer shouted. When the man continued walking, the officer fired his gun… at the TV screen. The suspicious-looking man was an actor, and the SWAT team member’s gun was loaded with blanks. This was all part of an experiment run by researchers at the Human Performance Lab. They were interested in how experienced SWAT officers would react to situations differently than recent graduates of the police academy. In the case of the school bomber, the new police officers almost always let the bomber walk right into the building. They lacked the necessary intuition to diagnose the situation and respond accordingly. It turns out that intuition goes hand-in-hand with expertise—and both are a function of memory.
The Human Performance Lab was started by K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who studied the relationship between expertise and memory. He devoted his career to investigating why people who are experts in their fields have a greater ability to remember concepts related to those fields. Ericsson was responsible for discovering that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert. He wasn’t the first person to study the limits and capabilities of memory, however. Long before Ericsson started the Human Performance Lab, a Harvard psychologist named George Miller published a paper called “The Magical Number Seven.” In it, he wrote about how most individuals are limited to thinking about a maximum of seven things at a time. As we move through the world, information gets stored in our working memory, a sort of purgatory between short- and long-term memory. Miller discovered that “the magical number seven” is where our working memory maxes out—unless, that is, you’re an expert.
Experts in their field can hold more than seven pieces of information in their heads at one time, so long as they pertain to their area of expertise. That’s why seasoned waiters can remember a string of complicated orders, and London cabbies can find their way from one end of the city to the other. The more you practice in a given area, the better you’ll become at remembering it. So if you truly want to expand your memory, try to become an expert at something. It may take 10,000 hours, but you’ll no longer be limited by that pesky number seven.
“The more you practice in a given area, the better you’ll become at remembering it.”
2. Take a stroll down memory lane.
In the 5th century B.C., the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a banquet when a messenger called him outside. Shortly after he stepped out, the banquet roof collapsed and killed everyone inside. He was the lone survivor. As bereaved family members flooded to the scene and searched for their loved ones amid the rubble, Simonides discovered an unusual talent. By closing his eyes and picturing the inside of the banquet hall, he was able to remember which people were sitting at which tables. He then directed the grieving relatives to where their family member’s corpse lay amid the stones.
Simonides didn’t have a photographic memory—in fact, research disputes whether such a thing exists. Instead, he was using his brain in the way it had evolved to recall memories. Humans think spatially—we didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers or birthdays, as helpful as those skills would be. Instead, we’re hardwired to remember essential skills, like how to find food and navigate home. So how does this apply to modern memory? Chances are, if you close your eyes, you can call to mind the interior of your house or workplace, maybe even your college campus or your best friend’s house. It makes sense that we remember places well; it’s literally a survival skill.
The technique of mentally mapping out a familiar place is commonly referred to as building a “memory palace.” Even though it dates back to 5th-century Greece, it’s still used by today’s memory champions. The idea is to take a stroll down a memory lane of your choice, imagining the items you want to remember at distinct points along the way. Later, in order to remember them, you mentally retrace your steps. Lo and behold, those images come rushing back. Best of all, a memory palace need not be a palace; it can be any physical space that exists in your head, whether that’s a walk around your block or a stroll through your childhood home. It can be based on a place you know well, or be a product of your imagination. Mental athletes often have dozens, even hundreds, of memory palaces, each of which stores a different set of memories. Whether you want to remember your grocery list or memorize Dante’s Inferno, a memory palace can lead you there.
“Humans think spatially—we didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers or birthdays, as helpful as those skills would be.”
3. Make your images stick.
The Rhetorica ad Herennium is an ancient Latin rhetoric textbook. For mental athletes, it’s also the Bible. The book is chock full of memory techniques that, back in the day, were commonplace to learn. Memory training was a discipline taught in schools along with languages and math, and having a sharpened memory was seen as a valuable asset. The anonymous author of the ad Herennium drew a distinction between two types of memory: natural and artificial. Whereas natural memory is the capacity for remembering that all humans have, artificial memory is what goes into those empty spaces.
Two main categories dominate our artificial memory: images and places. As we’ve learned, building a memory palace can be a wonderful way to store memories. That’s the “place” part. Once you have a memory palace, though, you need to fill it with things to remember. That’s where “images” come in—you need to turn banal pieces of information into interesting images. Mental athletes are pros when it comes to taking something they want to remember and transforming it into something their brain is good at remembering. This process is called “elaborative encoding,” and it’s easier to learn than you might think.
It turns out that memories need something to hook onto in order for us to find them. Elaborative encoding is a way of taking your memories and making them stickier, more likely to stay put in your memory palace. So, what type of images work? Creativity is key. Let’s say you’re memorizing the order of a deck of cards, and you need a clever way to remember that the first card is the ace of diamonds. Diamonds remind you of baseball diamonds, so you decide to imagine a baseball bat as the stand-in for that card. But a simple baseball bat isn’t very memorable. A naked Nancy Pelosi brandishing a hot pink Louisville slugger, on the other hand, is quite memorable. The wackier, stranger, and sexier you can make your images, the more likely you are to remember them. If you can add an element of novelty or a multisensory element, all the better. Go ahead, I dare you to look at an ace of diamonds and not see that image of Nancy Pelosi in front of you.
“The wackier, stranger, and sexier you can make your images, the more likely you are to remember them.”
4. Don’t dumb it down—break it down.
Every writer knows that clichés and repetition are to be avoided at all costs. So why did Homer, one of the most famous writers in history, riddle his texts with them? Both the Iliad and Odyssey have several literary quirks that seem like big no-nos. For instance, every main character’s name is preceded by a description: “clever Odysseus,” “laughing Aphrodite,” and so on. And yes, she’s “laughing Aphrodite” even when she’s crying. A 20th-century scholar named Milman Parry argued that those stylistic quirks were evidence that both texts had been recited orally, over and over, before being committed to paper. The author we know as “Homer” may have been a collection of ancient bards who passed along the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey over the course of years. As for those stylistic quirks, they were in there to help those bards remember.
It turns out that humans are pretty bad at remembering texts—anything involving a string of words tends to go in one ear and out the other. But why? Early memory treatises distinguished between two types of memory: memoria rarum, memory for things, and memoria verborum, memory for words. Cicero argued that the memoria rarum was the better technique for memorizing texts, as trying to remember each individual word was likely to fail. Instead, he said that memorizing the text’s main points was a better tactic. In the case of a speech, that means noting the important talking points. In the case of a poem like the Odyssey, it means remembering the main plot points. Using memoria rarum plays to the human brain’s strengths. Think about the last conversation you had, and then try to remember it word-for-word. It’s hard, right? We tend to remember the gist of a conversation, not the actual words said. We naturally dumb things down to help us remember them.
Memorizing a long poem is one of the most dreaded tasks at the World Memory Championships. The very abstractness of poetry makes it difficult to memorize. Our brains like sticky images, remember? They do not like abstract concepts such as justice or love. So if you find yourself in need of memorizing a text, whether it’s a wedding speech or an ancient poem, try breaking it down. The author of the ad Herennium suggests taking a poem line by line. Read each line a couple of times, then try to see it as a series of images. Or think of a pun that plays on one of the words. Alternatively, break a complicated word into syllables and find images that rhyme with them. Some mental athletes really do this down to the syllable, pairing a unique image with each combination of vowels and consonants. No matter what you try, breaking down a text into discrete units will help you remember it. Otherwise, your mind will dumb it down for you, and you’ll be left remembering only the big idea.
“We tend to remember the gist of a conversation, not the actual words said. We naturally dumb things down to help us remember them.”
5. Fail harder.
Let’s say you have a doctor’s appointment on a Tuesday afternoon. When you go to check in, the receptionist asks a question you weren’t expecting: would you rather see Dr. A, who just graduated from medical school, or Dr. Z, who has been practicing for 40 years? Most people would pick Dr. Z—after all, you want an experienced doctor who’s seen it all, not some newbie who’s still breaking in their scrubs. But believe it or not, most doctors don’t get better with time. Surgeons, however, do—unlike most medical fields, surgery is a high-stakes endeavor in which success or failure are immediately known. Errors are deadly and don’t take 20 years to rear their heads. As a result, surgeons are forced to continuously learn from their mistakes. By receiving constant feedback on their work, surgeons continue to improve with time.
Whenever you learn a new skill, whether it’s heart surgery or basketball, you go through a few stages. First you enter into “the cognitive stage,” in which you’re integrating the basics into your mind and finding ways to become more efficient. Then comes “the associative stage,” in which you make fewer mistakes and have to focus less. Finally, you enter into “the autonomous stage,” in which you don’t have to think much to perform at your baseline. That’s where we get trapped in what Foer calls the “OK plateau.”
The OK plateau happens when you unconsciously assume that you’ve gotten as good at that skill as you need to be, so you stop trying. Most of us are running on autopilot all day, whether we’re typing on our computers or driving home from work. And that makes sense, because paying attention to every single task we do would be exhausting. In the case of Joshua Foer, he hit the OK plateau several months into his memory training. Up until that point, he’d been able to see his progress—but then he stopped getting better. No matter how many hours he devoted to memorization, his times weren’t getting faster, nor was he able to remember more. He found himself stranded on the OK plateau.
In order to find his way out of it, Foer had to force himself back into the cognitive stage. In other words, he couldn’t rely on his memory to be good at remembering. He had to get it into shape. In order to do this, he forced himself to practice in ways that were deliberate and challenging. He also had to learn the uncomfortable art of not just failing, but studying his failures. In order to improve, you must not only make mistakes but also examine them and understand what went wrong. You should also study the moves of people who are much, much better than you. All of these tricks are ways to keep yourself out of autopilot. Most of all, you must learn to pay attention when you practice; no matter the field or activity, the art of paying attention pays dividends in progress.
If you’re dead set on improving your memory, think of it as an interconnecting network of skills and muscles that need to be taken to the gym. By keeping yourself off the OK plateau, you too can become a mental athlete. After his year of practice, Joshua Foer won the USA Memory Championship. And that’s a moment he’s unlikely to forget.
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