Moonwalking with Einstein

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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12 thoughts on “Moonwalking with Einstein

  1. I have this on my to-read list. I am not to keen on rote memory (that is the one side of Classical education that I don’t especially like). But in saying that I am speaking more of lists/facts. I do, however, think there is a lot of value in memorizing ideas (poetry, scripture). I’m still trying to figure it out, and what I want to do with my kids. I have just seen lots of extensive rote memory that didn’t serve the intended purpose so I’m a little leery of it.

    1. My thinking is still evolving on that issue too. I think the facts and dates can be quite helpful, but ONLY if they are linked to an idea. I don’t personally see a lot of value to memorizing lists of things that have no connections. However, I have seen a lot of value in, for example, memorizing the books of the Bible (so the kids have a sense of where things are) or a very general history timeline (so that when we read something, they know approximately where it fits in with the rest of history). I do see evidence all the time of them making connections that way. What I have a harder time with are lists of facts that are completely divorced from ideas–for one thing those are harder to memorize, and it seems to make more sense to memorize things as you need them (math formulae etc). Some things just don’t seem necessary (like knowing digits of pi beyond 3.14) given how much helpful and character-forming material is available to furnish your mind with instead.

      1. I think this book helped me see some of the memory facets of classical education in a better light overall. I think it also helped that I’d been exposed to some classical curricula that use memory aids (e.g., and incidentally, the timeline song via Classical Conversations) to spur on adding lots of facts.

        I was also reminded of my Biblical Greek professor who used pneumonic devices well. And guess which words I still remember best? 🙂 He also had us go over the paradigms almost daily, and I still remember those, too.

        Regarding the memory palace, I do think you could potentially use this for remembering historical facts, dates, or even momentary items you need to remember.

          1. Yes, we’ve been using the CC timeline song this year. Last year CC used the Veritas Press timeline without a song, just with motions, and it didn’t stick that well. This year with the song and some motions (we use a simplified set, not the ones CC released) it’s a totally different story.

        1. Mnemonics are definitely helpful. I had to take some kind of standardized test (IQ? Who knows?) in 3rd grade in which we were given a set time to look at pairs of unrelated pictures. Then some time later (maybe the next day?) we were given a test to see if we could remember which went together. No one had ever told me about mnemonics, but I remembered the pairs by connecting them in odd ways. I still remember some of the mental pictures from that test, like 25 years later!

          I’ve always used mnemonic type memorizing in one way or another, but this book did show me more formal ways to implement them.

  2. I really enjoyed this book even though the whole aspect of memorizing random things just to prove you can seems pointless to me. There are so many worthwhile things to put into your brain, why would you want to spend your time on worthless facts (like the digits of pi). I understand why them end up doing it for the memory competitions, but I guess I don’t really see the point of those either. But then again, bragging rights have never meant that much to me. 🙂

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