One day, journalist Joshua Foer was searching for the world’s smartest person. The next, he was imagining Pope Benedict XVI getting kicked in the groin, 7'7" basketball star Manute Bol performing lewd sexual acts, and a variety of other celebrities and friends engaging in equally bizarre behavior.
Foer was, of course, training his memory. He chronicles his story of journalist-turned-memory competitor in his excellent book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.
As a mid-20s freelance journalist working on a story about intelligence, Foer found himself covering the 2005 United States Memory Championship, a competition he hadn’t even realized existed until he began research for his article. The next year, the guy who claimed his own memory was “average at best” moved from the audience to the stage, competing against the best “mental athletes” in the country.
Under the tutelage of British memory master Ed Cooke (the United States lags behind several other countries, including England, when it comes to memory competition), Foer makes unbelievable progress. He is able to memorize the order of multiple decks of cards in just a few minutes, long strings of random numbers, and, for more everyday use, details about people he has just met.
Foer does a great job of navigating the reader through the various memory techniques he and other top competitors use, most of which stem from the idea of a “memory palace.” Humans are far better at remembering visual images than, say, the number 523. Foer’s approach involved translating these numbers—or playing cards, or items on a shopping list—into distinct images and placing them within his memory palace, a real place he could visit in his mind.
Using the shopping list example, you could associate a stick of butter with Marilyn Monroe bathing in a tub of butter; for eggs, you could visualize a man in a chicken costume laying eggs. If your memory palace for this particular exercise is your childhood home, you would mentally place each of the items within a room in the house. When you arrive at the actual grocery store, you can simply take a mental walk through your memory palace, recalling Monroe in the tub at your front door and the chicken in your parents’ bedroom. It sounds crazy, but it works.
Foer skillfully weaves the history of memorization techniques with his own training, engaging—and perhaps inspiring—readers along the way. The value of all this training, though, is questionable. Even as Foer is able to compete at the country’s highest level, we learn at the end of the book he can’t always remember when he put his car keys. Why spend your time memorizing dozens of addresses and phone numbers when you can store them on your phone and access them at any time with little effort?
If nothing else, utilizing these techniques would certainly win you some bar bets. I’ve got a long way to go to reach even that level: I finished Moonwalking with Einstein a few weeks ago and in order to write this review, I had to flip through its pages to refresh my memory.