Pay attention and engage. That may be the overarching lesson I am learning and relearning. This week’s Five Star Friday recommendation, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer is my personal challenge to get out of the shallow end.
Bear with me while I explain. I grew up in the shadow of family members who could easily spout off facts, quotes, and a litany of statistics, or perfectly executed comedic monologues. I blamed my inability to do the same on not having a photographic memory and missing the magical genetic code .
But my husband disagrees; he says I can recall every date, time, content, context, and what he was wearing during each of his minor infractions then sometime in the future, I perfectly hurl them back as if I were reciting an oft-performed Shakespearean monologue. I cannot deny that the details I care about I remember completely with total clarity. For other stuff, I have Google and a calculator.
Except, there’s this annoying voice in my head that I can’t silence – the one that accuses me of being cognitively lazy when it comes memorizing details. I admit when I “studied” for high school or college exams in courses that I didn’t enjoy, my eyes glazed over and I slipped into my cozy waking dream state – literally, checking out and letting my thoughts dance down the yellow brick road to a more interesting locale. Head in the clouds. Daydreaming.
Which brings me back to Moonwalking with Einstein. I first learned of Foer’s work while reading Make It Stick-The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel) a study of techniques, including the method of loci Foer utilized. After that initial introduction to this ancient strategy, I knew I wanted to read more, step closer toward the deep end.
This ‘normal’ person’s successful, albeit challenging, journey to develop his memory provides hope that even someone like me can improve if I take the time and make the effort. Engage. Pay attention.
Publisher Summary: 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, Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.
Foer’s evolution includes an absorbing look at the role memory has played throughout human existence, as well as a study of individuals who have no ability to form new memories, and the philosophical relationship between time and memory. He writes that facts alone do not lead to understanding, but “you can’t have understanding without facts. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”
This is the basis of the method of loci, or memory palaces. The more associations a person can connect to a something new, the more likely it will be remembered. At times, those locations or associations are akin to moonwalking with Einstein or even bawdy images. Whatever it takes to retrieve the information is fair game. And it makes for fun reading.
As Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her review for the New York Times “His assemblage of personal mnemonic images is riotous. He makes suspenseful an event animated mostly by the participants’ “dramatic temple massaging.” By book’s end, Foer can boast the ability to memorize the order of nine and one-half decks of cards in an hour. Yet he still loses track of where he left his car keys like the rest of us. He numbly types into his cellphone the phone numbers he does not want to bother to remember. And one can only imagine what he will do with the fantastical images that now people his brain.”
While I do not want to remember the order of playing cards in a shuffled deck, there is a plethora of interrelated details and sequences that I absolutely want to remember. Should remember. So as I start the new year, I have another tool I can employ to argue with my know-it-all relatives.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Foer:
Atlas Obscura Celebrates the world’s most wondrous and unusual places – from macabre museums to magical natural phenomena – in all corners of the globe.
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Make it Stick The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, Mark A. McDaniel. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners. Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn.
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