Moonwalking with Einstein - by Joshua Foer
READ: Sept 29, 2013
Moonwalking with Einstein follows the unlikely journey of a journalist who discovers memory athletics, then eventually becomes the U.S. Memory Champion. What makes this book special is that it is narrative non-fiction and reads like a novel. The author's story is captivating, and what he teaches us about memory and the human brain are inspiring. Foer does a great job capturing the interesting history and science of memory, as well as going into detail about specific mnemonic techniques and exercises that anyone can practice. Since much of Foer's journey was him training in preparation for the U.S. Memory Championship, the book also does a great job discussing and providing a practical introduction to the field of deliberate practice — the science of becoming an expert. Overall, I walked away from this book inspired by a newfound appreciation for what our minds are capable of.
Every day there seems to be more to remember — our culture bombards us with new information — anecdotes, experiences, books — yet our brains capture so little of it. Most just goes in on ear and out the other. What would happen to have all the otherwise-lost knowledge at our fingertips? How many worthwhile ideas have gone unthought and connections unmade because of our memory's shortcomings?
Memory athletes insist that they have "average memories" and that their abilities are simply a matter of learning to "think in more memorable ways" using "extraordinarily simple" mnemonic techniques known as the "Memory Palace" that Simonides (a Greek poet) invented.
The art of memory were born in the middle ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons to prayers to punishments… then again these same tricks were used by statesmen to memorize speeches, scholars to memorize books… once upon a time, a trained memory was not just a handy tool, but a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. Only thorough memorization, could ideas be truly incorporated into one's psyche and their values absorbed.
Then Gutenberg came along and turned books into mass-produced commodities, and in became no longer all that important to remember what the printed page could remember for you. Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world's ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories — externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to internal memory becoming devalued: erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory.
Tony Buzan, the founder of the World Memory Championship, has been working to get memory techniques, or, "learning how to learn" — implemented in schools around the world. Buzan believes schools go about teaching wrong. They pour vast amounts of information into students' heads, but don't teach them how to retain it. In general, Buzan argues that memory has been abused and gotten a bad rep: "What we have been doing over the last century is defining memory incorrectly, understanding it incompletely, applying it inappropriately, and condemning it because it doesn't work and isn't enjoyable."
What is memory?
For normal humans, memories gradually decay with time along what's known as the "curve of forgetting." From the moment you grasp a new piece of information, your memory's hold on it begins to slowly loosen, until it finally lets go altogether.
Though it's still up in the air whether we possess "perfect" memories in the sense that memories are never lost (just difficult to find), it's become clear that the fading, mutating, and eventual disappearance of memories over time is a real physical phenomenon that happens in the brain at the cellular level.
Photographic memory is a myth (p. 29).
All memories are bound together in a web of associations. Our brain is made up of ~100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of five to ten thouasnd synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, physically transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network (p. 33).
Thinking about the word "coffee" makes you think about the color black and also about breakfast and the taste of bitterness… this is a function of a cascade of electrical impulses rocketing around a real physical pathway inside your brain, which links a set of neurons that encode the concept of coffee with others containg the concepts of blackness, breakfast, and bitterness.
The nonelinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception—some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. Thus "hunting down" memories can be frustrating and often futile.
When mental athletes learn new information, they engage regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation (p. 39). Mental athletes consciously convert information they are trying to memorize into images, and then distribute those images along familiar spatial journeys.
"Baker/baker paradox" — A researcher shows two people the same photograph of a face and tells one of them that the guy is a baker and the other that his last name is Baker. A couple days later, the researcher shows the same two guys the same photograph and asks for the accompanying word. The person who was told the man's profession is much more likely to remember it than the person who was given his surname. When you hear that the man in the photo is a baker, that fact gets embedded in a whole network of ideas about what it means to be a baker — he cooks bread, he wears a big white hat, etc. The name Baker is only tethered to a memory of the person's face — this link is tenuous, and should it dissolve, the name will be lost. But when it comes to the man's profession, there are multiple strings to reel the memory back in. Turning Baker into baker is the trick to remembering people's names. (p. 44)
We can only think about roughly seven things at a time. In another words, our "working memory" (a collection of brain systems that hold on to whatever is present in our minds) capacity is limited. Working memory serves as a filter between our perception of the world and our long-term memory of it. Computers are built around the same model. (p. 56)
"digit span test" - standard measure of a person's working memory capacity (p. 60)
Since short-term memory is limited, the art of memory is figuring out ways of deliberately store information in long-term memory.
Short- and long-term memory processes occur in different parts of the brain. The hippocampus turns short-term memory into long-term memory.
Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item. Chunking is the reason that phone number are broken into two parts plus an area code and that credit card numbers are broken into groups of four.
Chunking takes seemingly meaningless information and reinterprets it in light of information that is already stored away somewhere in our long-term memory, giving it meaning and making the information much stickier.
120741091101 == 120, 741, 091, 101 == 12/07/41, 09/11/01 == "the two big surprise attacks on American soil"
We don't remember isolated facts, we remember things in context (p. 65)**
Chess masters use the vast library of chess patterns that they've cached away in long-term memory to chunk the board — he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize. Brain monitoring shows that experts are interpreting the present board in terms of their massive knowledge of past ones, whereas lower-ranked players are seeing the board as something new.
Expertise == "vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain." A great memory isn't just a by-product of expertise; it is the essence of expertise -- our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses. Everything we see, hear, and smell is inflected by all the things we've seen in the past.
Our lives are structured by our memories of events. "Time flies when you're having fun" is wrong. Just a we accumulate memories of facts by integrating them into a network, we accumulate life experiences by integrating them into a web of other chronological memories. The denser the web, the denser the experience of time. Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthy and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bout to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That's why it's important to change routies regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches our psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives. (p. 76)
Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older.
Scientists generally divide memories broadly into two types: declarative and nondeclarative. Declarative memories are things you know you remember, like the color of your car, or what happened yesterday afternoon. Nondeclarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror. Declarative memories have two subcategories: semantic memories — facts an concepts, and episodic memories — memories of the experiences of our own lives (p. 81)
Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and there make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But each time we also transform/reshape the memory… often altering it from what really occurred.
"Elaborative encoding" - The technique of changing whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it.
Our memories are not adapted to the information age — they are designed for hunting-and-gathering, remembering routes, identifying edible plants.
A basic principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don't remember all types of information equally well. We are exceptional at remembering visual spatial imagery. We're terrible at remembiner other kinds of information, like lists of words or numbers. Therefore what we want to do is transform kinds of memories our brains aren't good at holding on to and transform them into kinds of memories our brains were built for.
"memory palace": A memory palace is a place you know well that you use in order to leverage spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally. You create a space in the mind's eye — a place/path that you know intimately well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined space with images representing whatever you want to remember. Your childhood home is a great memory palace to start with. (p. 96)
Humans excel at learning spaces — as an example, if you're left alone for 5 minutes in someone else's house you've never visited before… you'd be able to learn not just where all the different rooms are and how they connect with each other, but their dimensions and decorations, the arrangement of their contents, and where the windows are… if you add it all up, it's the equivalent of a short novel. Try to remember any elementary school teacher's names. Try to remember your elementary school's building.
It's very important to try to remember images multisensorily. Imagine the smell, the sound… The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.
Try to make images bizarre — dishonrable, extroardinary, laughable, unbelievable… visualizing an outlandish image demand more mental effort, forming more durable connections among neurons. (p. 99)
What distinguishes a great mnemonist is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly — it's more a test of creativity than actual memory.
When you try to recall something from a category that includes many instances, many memories compete for attention. eg. "shoes". Using outlandish images, eg. a shoe that talks creates a memory without rivals.
The more abstract a word is, the less memorable. eg. "Email" is hard to create an image from, so we want to make it concrete eg. visualize a person typing away at the computer.
Normal memories are stored at random in webs of association. When you utilize spatial memory, you store memories in a very controlled context. Because of the way spatial cognition works, all you have to do is retrace your steps through your memory palace, and the images you laid down will pop back into your mind as you pass by them.
Memoria rerum - memory for things Memoria verborum - memory for words
The best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, using one image per major topic. (p. 122).
Though the brain only accounts for 2% of the body's mass, it uses up a 1/5 of the oxygen we breathe and 1/4 of the glucose we burn.
Research supports the theory that Homer's Odyssey and *Illiad were not actually written by Homer, but rather are a collection of songs transmitted from generation to generation. This explains the stylistic quirks—recurring plot elements, reptitive epithets, cliches—which are all mnemonic aids that helped the bards memorize the poems (p. 127).
Before the rise of writing, poems were dual-purpose—they were designed for oral transmission and entertainment. With the rise of writing, no longer did peoms require the functional purpose of being memorizable and transmittable. And no longer was it OK to memorize the point, you'd have to memorize them verbatim.
Ad Herennium suggests that the best method for memorizing poety ad verbum is to repeat a line two or three times before trying to see it as as series of images.
But how do you create images for the unseeable, eg. the word "and" or "or"? Use a special predefined dictionary of images (eg. "and" could be a circle).
How did memory, once so essential, end up so marginalized? How did our culture end up forgetting how to remember?
Socrates said that it would be "singularly simple-minded to believe that written words can do anything more than remind one of what one already knows". Socrates feared that writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path toward intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels.
As books became easieer and easier to consult (eg. with the invention of indexes), the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing informatinon internally to knowning where to find information in the world of external memory.
We are moving toward a future in which we will have allencompassing exernal memories that record huge swaths of our daily activity.
"Major System" — technique for memorizing short numbers. A simple code for converting numbers into phonetic sounds, which are then in turn turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace.
"Person-Action-Objects/PAO" — technique for memorizing long numbers which assigns a PAO image for every digit 0-99 — a 6 digit number can in turn be converted into a single image. This PAO methods generates unique images for numbers 0 - 999,999. The same method is applied to memorizing decks of playing cards — triplets of cards can be represented as an image, thus an entire deck would only require 18 images.
If we sit behind a keyboard typing everyday, why don't we continually just get better and better? Why do we plateau?
Anders Ericsson - the three stages of acquiring a new skill:
- "cognitive stage" - you're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more efficiently
- "associative stage" - you're concentrating less, making fewer errors, and becoming more efficient
- "autonomous stage" - you figure you've gotten as good as you need to get and you're running on autopilot
In the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control of what you're doing — as the task becomes more automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active.
Top achievers in any field develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice doing three things: - focusing on their technique - staying goal oriented - getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance in order to discover ways to perform better
They force themselves to stay in the "cognitive stage". The best way to do this is to practice failing — eg. play against a better opponent, type faster than what feels comfortable and make mistakes
When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that's been rigorously examine,d from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance. (p. 171)
The art of memory is about learning how little of an image you need to see to make it memorable.
Bruce Lee: "There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you."
Competitive memory athletes don't benefit from a practical memory advantage in day-to-day activities. Rather, memory sport is about cultivating our ability to remember.
Why is memory important?
Memories make up who we are. They shape our perception and understanding of the world, and how we act on it.
Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it caches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.
Without a conceptual framework in which to embed what you are learning, you are effectively an amnesiac. Even if facts don't by themselves lead to understanding, you can't have understsanding without facts. The more you know, the easier it is to know more.