Monday, May 09, 2011

"Moonwalking with Einstein"

Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking with Einstein takes an obscure topic and unexpectedly makes it interesting and relevant. The book has three elements often found in solid modern journalism.

First, Foer includes many interviews with eccentric people. He describes and interviews several amnesiacs and idiot savants who can remember vast amounts of stuff naturally. He also presents a few flamboyant memory experts who are eccentric or maybe phony con-men.

Second, he describes the relevant neuroscience -- here, how memory works in the brain. His explanations are really useful and intriguing.

Third, Foer relates his personal experiences -- how he learned the ancient "art of memory" by working with other memory champions and thus won the 2006 USA Memory Championship. In particular he describes what was going through his mind as he memorized a deck of cards -- including envisioning moonwalking with Einstein to fix one card in memory.

I enjoyed reading all of this, and learned a lot. However, I'm not really inspired to try developing my own technique for Memory Championship types of tasks such as learning strings of digits or the order of cards in a shuffled deck. Some years ago I read Frances Yeats' book The Art of Memory, so I was aware of the ancient trick of using a familiar house or other building as repository -- Memory Palace -- for things that should be memorized. I was impressed by the way that modern enthusiasts have re-adapted this technique.

Foer acknowledges that there are many aspects of memory that he didn't work on or fully understand, and that the routine memories that people often worry about -- like where one put one's car keys -- aren't improved by the Memory Palace approach or even by some of the other methods he hints at. As a result I have questions that I'd like to know after reading the book:
  • How do musicians memorize works like concertos that must be utterly perfect to play with an orchestra?
  • How do actors memorize their roles -- he alludes to this but doesn't explain, and they don't seem to do it by the ancient Memory Palace technique.
  • How do children seemingly memorize everything? Do they really lose their abilities as they develop reading skills, or is something else actually happening in their brains?
  • Do today's teenagers still memorize the lyrics to zillions of popular songs as my friends did? He mentions that singing is a technique for remembering (like the Australian Aboriginal Song Lines that allowed them to memorize maps) but doesn't develop the idea more.
  • How do you memorize a poem? He didn't actually seem to know the answer to this.
  • And how does a Pensive work? Harry Potter witnessed older wizards pulling smoke-like memories from their brains. And via the Pensive, he was able to re-experience these memories and make them his own. But what's the wizard neuroscience? (Yeah, I know, there aren't really any wizards.)
Evelyn gave me Moonwalking for Mother's Day -- on my Kindle. Great gift!!


Jeanie said...

It sounds interesting, but I confess, some of my questions are the same as yours would be!

Carol said...

Memorizing long musical pieces is complex:it requires motor memory, auditory memory, and remembering the detailed structure of the piece. I'm guessing people with perfect pitch have an advantage, but there is a LOT of meticulous practicing required.

Evelyn said...

The book's premise is that the reason why we all have such trouble memorizing - including music as well as any other item - is that we do it using the wrong method, namely rote, and that if we used the memory palace method, or one of the other scientifically designed methods, we would be able to do it much easier. I absolutely believe this. The book had quite strong evidence that it is true. That is not the same as knowing how to do it.

Hannah said...

Actually, the way that musicians and actors memorize long concerti and parts IS through rote repetition. I've never heard a musician say anything about "memory palace" and I know a ton of them, being one myself. I guess this is unbelievable to a lot of people because hardly anyone likes to take the time to spend more than a few hours concentrating on a single thing. For musicians this isn't a problem because they have to spend hours on the technique alone, and those hours concentrating on how to play the piece transfer into memory quite easily. People naturally memorize so much else without mnemonic devices, I don't see why it's a stretch.

In addition to memorizing music I also memorize poetry for fun, for instance I can recite the rime of the ancient mariner (626 lines) which is how I got on googling this topic in the first place. Foer has a ridiculous article about memorizing this poem:
by replacing its naturally rich and memorable imagery with ridiculous crap and putting said crap in a Memory Palace instead of just thinking about the story of the poem ("long gray hair and glittering eye" becomes an eyeball with a long gray beard sitting on his doorstep -- ???).

I do find that, especially with poetry, when I recite poems I am taken back mentally to the place where I memorized them, the kitchen table, the plane, the car, a sunny place on campus, a restaurant.

And this is another thing: People do have time for this stuff! For some reason most people aren't interested in harvesting it. Carry a poem around with you and memorize a few lines on the bus. Do this every day for a month or two and you'll have a really solid repertoire of memorized verse. Easy peasy. You'll just think of the bus every time you recite it.

As for the questions:
1. Musicians and concertos: practice and listening
2. actors: I'm not an actor but I'm guessing it's pretty similar
3. children: nothing but projecture here, but people lose what they don't use...
4. teenagers and popular songs: YES, they do, with essentially ZERO effort but repeated listening (as rote as anything).
5. memorize a poem: It's pretty easy, just work on a few lines at a time (like 2), cover the paper, repeat them to yourself, think of the image it's evoking, then go on to the next 2 lines, then repeat all four at once, then do it five times perfectly, then move on... and every so often brush up on it so it stays fresh in your memory.
6. I dunno I always just trusted the manufacturers

Hannah said...

I'd like to add that Memory Palace is probably wonderful for actually unmemorable stuff like the periodic table or long lists of dates or state capitals or what have you. But stuff with artistic content (music, drama, poetry) doesn't need it -- and is probably damaged by it, frankly