Say you are a journalist out to write an article about a fringe group in the US practicing an esoteric sport. While you are amazed by how geeky the sport is, you decide to participate in the sport for kicks just to get a sense of what it feels like to be in their shoes. You train for a few months, and lo and behold, you become the US national champion in that sport! In a nutshell, that’s what happened to Joshua Foer in 2006 at the US National Memory Championship.
That would also be the simplest and most boring way to describe his book Moonwalking with Einstein. In a book that blends together a non-fiction historical perspective into this ancient art, with a fast-paced first-person narrative about the author’s progress as he trains for this event, we are taken into the fascinating world where memorizing a deck of cards can be done in under 30 seconds by the experts.
What’s the trick? An ancient method of memorization dating back to the days of Simonides of Greece that trains the individual to use their visual and spatial memory to create detailed images of whatever they memorize – be it two or three decks of cards, 1000 random digits, or 50,000 digits of pi. It is fascinating to read about the lives of these mental athletes as they call themselves, and their single minded focus towards winning the national or world championships. Along the way, the author also provides a good look into research that is being done to assess how these techniques improve our basic memory skills and what it means to actually remember .. or forget.
Why does this matter? One of the outcomes from many of the studies he refers to is a definite correlation between predicting success of someone at chess and how well they are able to remember a particular formation on the chess board in the middle of a game. Or how gifted musicians are able to play hours of music without any sheet music for reference. At the fundamental level, it also questions the relevance of a learn-to-pass-the-test mentality that is rampant in the education systems across the world, where one can forget stuff learnt in a class the minute after the finals for that class .. for the most part. It questions whether externalizing most of our memory tasks – be it through smart phones or computers – is good for us when taken to the extreme as it is today.
This a difficulty many of us face as well. For example, what does it mean when I say I have “read a book” when my recollections of the book itself fade exponentially as days pass? What does an MBA with a focus on marketing or strategy mean when I might forget most of the frameworks taught to me in class soon after I graduate? The typical responses to this are that the recall rates would be much higher when we need to remember the materials, with the assistance of written material such as text books or websites. What does it mean when you “teach someone to fish” when for the most part, but for the tasks and chores that have not been automated and moved into procedural memory the rest of the details of fishing are forgotten soon after it is taught?
Interesting questions to ponder as one reads the book and digests the ramifications of what it presents. As a civilization we still celebrate the sub 3:45 mile, the impending shattering of the 2-hour barrier for the marathon, but when did we lose our desire to flex our minds to their limits?