Book review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

9780143120537

Title: Moonwalking with Einstein
The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
ISBN: 9780143120537
Pages: 320
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Science, Personal Growth, Memoir

An instant bestseller that is poised to become a classic, Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author’s own mind, this is an electrifying work of journalism that reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

— From Penguin Random House

I picked up Joshua Foer’s intriguing study of memory and memory champions out of sheer curiosity. You see I am a big language enthusiast. At one point or another you can find me studying French, Japanese, or Swedish, and as many language students will tell you, learning that pesky grammar or vocabulary can be exhausting. You can be drilling the same set of words entire night, remember them for the next morning’s test, and then forget them completely by suppertime. To our great frustration, human brains are built to form only the fun, unique experiences into long-term memories, and to toss the mundane, boring, rarely-used stuff into the pits of obscurity. If you’ve seen Pixar’s Inside Out, you actually have a pretty good idea about the inner workings of human thought processes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to find a book that would unlock the secrets of long-term memorization?

Well, Moonwalking with Einstein is not that kind of book, but it is exceptionally fascinating regardless. Foer takes upon himself to find out whether the so-called memory champions are unique human beings, possessing a rare talent only available to them, or if anyone can learn to do what they do with right techniques and motivation. Are our brains any different from theirs? Is there a way to “expand you mind’s capabilities”, as some pseudo-scientific pamphlets like to promise? As usual, the results are inconclusive, but Foer stumbles on some interesting data that might actually help you remember things easier, even if it’s used just to ace that language test or to insert a useless piece of trivia into a conversation.

In a way, Foer’s experiment reminded me of A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All that I’ve read years ago. Both authors dedicate themselves to a strange mind test, work relentlessly on it for an extensive amount of time, describe the humorous interactions with their long-suffering loved ones, participate in a major competition to test their work, and draw some conclusions based on their findings. If you liked Jacobs’s book, you’ll like Foer’s.

Besides taking away a few useful techniques for my own studies, I also really enjoyed the part where the author discusses savants. Seemingly superhuman, these individuals go beyond simple memorization through associations or the concepts of mind palaces, but utilize natural synesthetic capabilities to see the world different from us. Foer has multiple interviews with one of the most famous savants, Daniel Tammet, trying to determine whether he truly possesses a unique mind, or if he is just exceptionally good at memorization techniques. The results are worth to ponder about.

Moonwalking might not be a straight-forward manual about memorizing “everything”, but everyone can find something useful in it. Most importantly, it does an excellent job at convincing its readers that with some hard work and perseverance even an average Joe can do amazing things. So I am going to stop feeling sorry for myself, dust off that dictionary, and get back to learning my vocabulary.

Purchase this book: Book Depository
Author’s website: Joshua Foer
Foer’s TED Talk on memory: TED.com

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