Plato worried that reading would diminish the memory, and he was right. Now in our information age, our memories have shriveled even more. A third of British citizens under 30 don’t know their home phone numbers. Two-thirds of American teenagers don’t know when the Civil War took place. One-fifth don’t know who we fought against in World War II. And yet, the normal human mind, when trained right, is capable of great feats of memory.
Joshua Foer has written a book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, in the course of which he studied memory-improving techniques to the point that he became the 2006 Memory Champion–yes, there is such a competition–by memorizing a sequence of 52 cards in one minute, 40 seconds.
From a review of the book in the Washington Post by Marie Arana:
Devalued though human memory has become, it is what makes us who we are. Our memories, Foer tells us, are the seat of civilization, the bedrock of wisdom, the wellspring of creativity. His passionate and deeply engrossing book, “Moonwalking With Einstein,” means to persuade us that we shouldn’t surrender them to integrated circuits so easily. It is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind.
In the course of “Moonwalking,” we learn that our brains are no larger nor more sophisticated than our ancestors’ were 30,000 years ago. If a Stone Age baby were adopted by 21st-century parents, “the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.” The blank slate of memory hasn’t changed one bit, except that we’ve lost the incentive to use it to store large amounts of information. As one of Foer’s fellow mental athletes puts it, in the course of ordinary modern life, “we actually do anti-Olympic training . . . the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes . . . and spends the rest of the time watching television.”Foer introduces us to memory prodigies such as the young journalist S, who irked his employer because he took no notes but could memorize 70 digits at a time, reciting them forward and backward after one hearing. He could replicate complex formulas, although he didn’t know math; was able to repeat Italian poetry, though he spoke no Italian; and, most remarkable of all, his memories never seemed to degrade.
There are, too, master chess players who can remember every move of a match weeks or even years after the event. They become so skilled at recalling positions that they can take on several opponents at once, moving the pieces in their heads, with no physical board before them. There are London cabbies with such intricate maps committed to memory that their brains have enlarged right posterior hippocampuses. There is the child relegated to “the dunces’ class” because he cannot perform school tasks well, although he can identify distant birds by how they fly, having memorized dozens of flight patterns.
Foer sets out to meet the legendary “Brainman,” who learned Spanish in a single weekend, could instantly tell if any number up to 10,000 was prime, and saw digits in colors and shapes, enabling him to hold long lists of them in memory. The author also tracks down “Rain Man” Kim Peek, the famous savant whose astonishing ability to recite all of Shakespeare’s works, reproduce scores from a vast canon of classical music and retain the contents of 9,000 books was immortalized in the Hollywood movie starring Dustin Hoffman.
When Foer is told that the Rain Man had an IQ of merely 87 – that he was actually missing a part of his brain; that memory champions have no more intelligence than you or I; that building a memory is a matter of dedication and training – he decides to try for the U.S. memory championship himself. Here is where the book veers sharply from science journalism to a memoir of a singular adventure.
You can buy the book here,