Moonwalking With Einstein

Title: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Author's Background: Journalist; winner of 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championship

Notes

Quotes

People assume that memory decline is a function of being human, and therefore natural,” [Tony Buzan] said. “But that is a logical error, because normal is not necessarily natural. The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training. What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television. And then we wonder why that person doesn’t do well in the Olympics. That’s what we’ve been doing with memory.

The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests held around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?

Socrates goes on to disparage the idea of passing on his own knowledge through writing, saying it would be "singularly simple-minded to believe that written words can do anything more than remind one of what one already knows." Writing, for Socrates, could never be anything more than a cue for memory—a way of calling to mind information already in one’s head. 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. I wonder if Socrates would have appreciated the flagrant irony: It’s only because his pupils Plato and Xenophon put his disdain for the written word into written words that we have any knowledge of it today.

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled "deliberate practice." Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the "cognitive phase."

Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

Further Reading