Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a piece of “participatory journalism” in which the author begins covering the U.S. Memory Championship and ends with winning it one year later.
Along the way, Foer learned quite a bit about memory techniques, the science and history of memory, and why memorizing is so important, even though it’s fairly devalued in our current culture.
Until recently, memory played a critical role in culture and education, not just in the rote memorization of meaningless things, but in ethics and character being shaped and formed by the thoughts and ideas memorized. This involves a shift in the way we read as well as how we interact with ideas. Nowadays, Foer writes, we read quickly and widely, whereas in former times people really meditated on what they read, and read for depth and understanding. In part this is because now there are just so many more books–if you only have a couple of books available, of course you’re more likely to interact with the material over and over again and understand it more deeply. That said, I think there are ways we can read with an eye toward really ingesting and being changed by ideas, which is one reason I read with tabs, take notes, and discuss things I read.
The techniques described in the book, such as creating a memory palace and “elaborative encoding” (replacing boring or commonplace images with fantastic and creative ones), lend themselves more to the memorization of lists and decks of cards and whatnot than to things that I consider more useful to memorize, such as poetry and scripture and quotations and formulas. However, there were some tips for memorizing more coherent bodies of thought as well.
I enjoyed the discussion of classical education ideas in the book, and felt confirmed in some of my own thoughts and observations about effective memorizing as an educational goal. For example, Foer writes that “song is the ultimate structuring device for language.” I have definitely found that setting things to music makes them easier to memorize, both for me and for my kids. We have found this to be true with our history timeline (last year we learned it just by saying it, and didn’t really remember it well; this year it’s set to song and even Sarah can do most of the 170 or so points), Bible verses, Psalms, catechism, and history facts.
Beyond memorizing facts and passages, Foer writes about the importance of creating durable memories to foster a well-lived life. He says, “Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives.” To make a memorable life, you can’t just do the same thing day in and day out. You have to change your routine, do things out of the ordinary, and work at making memories. This is a valuable reminder, I think, because our memories have such an impact on our enjoyment of our lives.
As Foer points out, “People used to labor to furnish their minds. The invested in the acquisition of memories…” I think that’s a great aspiration, that we should work to furnish our minds with excellent ideas as well as meaningful experiences.
If you’re interested in memory, you’d probably enjoy the informative and entertaining style of Moonwalking with Einstein. Although it’s not terribly prescriptive in terms of what to memorize or exactly how to go about it, it’s a good start and will give you a lot to think about. I’d recommend it.
What is something you’d like to memorize? How do you make your life more memorable?
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