Notes - Moonwalking with Einstein

— 7 minute read

Just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, written by Joshua Foer who, interestingly enough, is the brother of one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a breeze to read and I finished it within a few days, it being one of the "light books" that I was reading to counter balance some of the heavier ones that I am reading concurrently, when I didn't have the energy to ponder about existential problems ala Harari or Rushkoff.

Moonwalking with Einstein was an inspiring read, as a book on a person's journey with a satisfying end is wont to be. Foer chronicles his experiences of training for a year to win the US Memory Championship. Along the way are observations and thoughts about the connection between memorisation and learning. Also fun are the host of characters that he introduces, particularly the mental athletes that he met, who are exemplary figures of living interestingly unapologetically. Ed, his memory coach, is a character that he describes as the following:

"I didn't know quite what to make of Ed. He was, I was gradually discovering, an aesthete, in the true Oscar Wilde sense. More than anyone I’d ever met, he seemed to participate in life as if it were art, and to practice a studied, careful carefreeness. His sense of what is worthy seemed to overlap very little with any conventional sense of what is useful, and if there were one precept that could be said to govern his life, it is that one’s highest calling is to engage in enriching escapades at every turn. He was a genuine bon vivant, and yet he approached the subject of his PhD research, the relationship between memory and perception, with a rigor and seriousness that suggested he intended to accomplish big things."

I want to be like Ed when I grow up.

Here are some of the ideas from the book that I thought were interesting:

  • Our perception of time is influenced by the number of memorable moments that we have within that period of time. For instance, children usually perceive time to be longer than adults whose time flies faster every year. One of the reasons is that fewer and fewer things surprise us as adults anymore and our memories meld together in a pool of routine sameness. So - tip for living a longer life - live a perceivedly longer life. A boring long life may actually feel the same in length as an interestingly lived short life. Said Foer, "that’s why it’s important to change routines 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 out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives."
  • Memory is contextual. That's why we find it difficult to remember random things if there is no context to set the scene. Visual and concrete images are easier to remember than concepts. Because of how we are built (as nomadic hunter-gatherers) we find it easier to remember things when they are put in a spatial context. That's the basic premise of the "memory palace" technique of remembering. The technique recommends visualising vividly a specific space and placing the objects that we want to remember within this mental space. The idea is fascinating to me. You are being given a pass to imagine, the more outrageous the imagination the better. To construct a mind place and furnish it with things I want to remember and then walking through this place doing a scavenger's hunt. Now, why I feel like adult life has no space for imagination is another thought for another day.
  • Experts simply have such a large pool of mental images in their domain of interest that they not so much think about what to do but just react to patterns that they know from memory. Examples: chess masters and chicken sexers (apparently there is a profession where the sex of chicks is told from some patterns from their butts so that they can tell the females from the males at an age before they exhibit clear characteristics. Then they toss the male chicks into a meat grinder :( but let's not dwell on that).
  • We need to have an existing reservoir of facts and understandings of how the world works within our memory in order to be creative, to make connections and to learn more. At present times we have been accustomed to externalising our memories and this may have an adverse impact on individual learning and on societal culture in general. This is not the first time I'd read this, I think it might have been Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet is rewiring our brains that had given me this argument before. Nevertheless, it is an important point to revisit.
  • There are three stages to learning. The cognitive stage, where the learning is about "intellectualising the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently". The associative stage, where you are "concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient". The autonomous stage is where you become good enough and you're running on autopilot, losing conscious control of what you are doing. This is where people plateau in their learning process. They often mistake that this is as good as they are going to get, but it is not true. What is key to continuous learning is to consciously make sure that you are always in the cognitive stage, to make sure you keep being conscious and deliberate in your learning and practice, and to "watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes". This is an important insight that I want to constantly remind myself. That when I'm not failing, I'm not actually learning more.
  • Memorising and learning is something that we can train our brain to do, the more we do of something the better we get at it. "Crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. 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." says Foer.

Among the different thoughts that this book has sparked, one is a renewed commitment to learn Farsi. On one hand it is to continue training the linguistic part of my brain which has been gravely neglected in the past year and a half since my interest in art increased. On the other hand, with the inspiration gleaned from this book, it seems that anything is possible. If Foer can win the national memory championship after a year of putting his nose to the grindstone, I could put in regular work on Farsi that will bring me someplace unknown but awesome in a year.

Certainly, I could go back to my plateaued Japanese and Spanish and work harder on them, but what excites me more is the unknown - how efficiently can I learn a completely new language from scratch, now? What are the novel elements in Farsi that I will discover as I learn more than the alphabet? How will my life change if I hold a key to a different culture, its knowledge, its wisdom, its poetry?

Moonwalking with Einstein is the 21st book that I have finished in 2019.