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“Moonwalking with Einstein” is a book recounting the experiences of US Memory Championship winner Joshua Foer, whose day job is NY Times journalist. The book is easy on eyes and can be read in a few hours time. One might shy away from books that deal with memory assuming they are of “self-help” type books . But that’s not the case with this book. This book is a result of curious journalist who happens to cover National and International Memory championships for a couple of times and starts wondering about the participants. He starts pondering over a few questions:

  • Passive questions like (When I say passive, any memory championship event spectator would have these questions)
    • How do people memorize a long list of random numbers ?
    • How do people memorize a deck of cards ?
    • How does one memorize a poem ?
  • Curiosity driven questions like
    • Are the participants’ brains wired differently?
    • Are they gifted people and average Joe can never perform such feats ?
    • How does brain remember things? Memory competitions definitely check on working memory. So, Is long term memory involved at all in improving short term memory ?
    • Does memorizing some arbitrary collection of random things be useful at all ?
    • How do the mathletes practice for these memory events ? Is there something that one can learn from these people so that we can apply to anything that we want to become good at.

In fact all the people whom the author interviews say that their feats are achievable by anybody. All it takes is to learn the right technique and master it. This makes the author very curious and so begins his quest for learning about memory, memory techniques, deliberate practice, exploring the common myths surrounding memory etc. Well, the first question that any reader gets by reading a few pages in the book is : There are so many devices/gadgets/services that help us remember things. Basically our culture is an edifice built on external memories. So, Why develop internal memories ? Is there any point in developing them?

I have listed down a few points against the various sections of this book that I found interesting.

  • There is something about mastering a specific field that breeds a better memory for the details of the field
  • Experts process enormous information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways.
  • Chunking is key to remembering and learning better. Chunking is key step in memorization techniques.
  • At the root of chess master’s skill is that he or she has a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize
  • Expertise is vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.
  • You need a stockpile of images / places to form visual images of words. You sequence these images to remember better.
  • We are exceptional at remembering visuals and pathetic at remembering words, numbers,etc. and this is key aspect driving all the memory techniques. The author describes his learning process with his mentor Ed. He learns about a technique called memory place, a method where you represent the content you want to remember using images and then populate the images in a familiar location.Humans are amazingly good at gobbling spatial information.So, instead of our memory that is non linear in nature, you are making an effort to linearize, put a pattern, put a sequence to these images. By laying down elaborate, engaging, vivid images in your mind, it more or less guarantees that your brain is going to end up storing a robust, dependable memory.
  • We read, read and read, then we forget, forget and forget. Frankly most of us read a lot of stuff and forget almost instantly. So, why read at all ? is a valid question as so much of info is readily externalized. You want any fact about any thing, you get it on net. You want to keep track of things, there are to-do list reminders The rate of externalizing memories has become faster. Anything you would want to commit to memory ,there are devices/gadgets/tools to make the memorization unnecessary. So, is there going to me a need for memorization at all ? This question I guess has to be answered by each one of us individually. As for me, I think there is a value in memorization as it instantly helps you connect the new material you are reading with the stuff that is already in your brain.

In the entire book, I found two sections particularly interesting.

First one is where deliberate practice is tied to memorization techniques. The author hits a plateau in his preparation for the US memory championships and this leads him to explore  `deliberate practice’, a concept popularized by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

What’s deliberate practice ? Well, we all go thorough various stages of learning, right from Cognitive stage where we are intellectualizing the task, to Associative stage where we are concentrating less, making fewer errors , to Autonomous stage where we operate in autopilot mode. It’s fine if we are in autopilot mode for some mundane stuff but it is not ok when we are want to gain expertise in something.

The trick is to get out of autopilot mode as much as possible by practicing hard. Practicing hard need not be practicing for long hours. It means to design the work in such a way that it stretches you and there is a possibility of learning from failures that ensue. So, according to Ericsson,the way to achieve expertise in any field is to practice failing so that there is a constant feedback for your work. In one word, we need to be attentive and choose hard tasks to become damn good at something. The author finds that mathletes apply these same scientific principles for memorization too. They develop hypotheses about their limitations, conduct experiments and track them. This reminds me of Atul Gawande’s book, “Better” , where he makes a strong case for tracking something, whatever be your interest.Tracking gives you an instant internal feedback. 

The other section of the book I liked was about a particular school in NY.The author visits a school in South Bronx, more specifically a class taught by a teacher who trains 43 kids in the class in developing memory. Whenever we hear memory development, there are only negative images that come in to our minds, like rote learning, creativity crushing etc. However this teacher at this school firmly believes that memory needs to taught at school level like any other skill. These memory techniques involve methods where kids are inculcated ways to visualize things. Every fact is turned in to an image. Well, do these techniques help ?The class is a case in point where all the 43 kids do extremely well in the school and in the entire region of South Bronx.

The author also manages to meet Tony Buzan. Though the author is extremely sarcastic about Buzan’s goals, he does seem to agree one of Buzan’s core principle that, memory and intelligence go hand in hand.

There is a nice little fact mentioned in this book : “Inventio” is the root word for the words “Inventory” and “Invention”. So in one sense , until one does not have some inventory of thoughts, invention seems unlikely, as more often than not, invention is nothing but clever combination of seemingly unrelated ideas/facts.

imageTakeaway :

Memory is like a spider web that catches new info. The more it catches the bigger it grows. If you are curious about `memory’ and its role in every day learning / awareness, you will find this book very interesting.

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