Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

“Ed sent me a quote from the venerable martial artist Bruce Lee, which he hoped would serve as inspiration: ‘There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.’ I copied that thought on to a Post-it note and stuck it wall. Then I tore it down and memorised it.”

Moonwalking with Einstein is an intelligent, fun read that tells the story of the author’s journey as he goes from a journalist reporting on the 2005 US Memory Championships, to somebody who - just one year later - returns to take the top spot at the same event.

Foer’s journey is an interesting one and he meets a host of curiously fascinating characters along the way (Tony Buzan, Ben Pridmore, Kim Peek, Daniel Tammet and his coach and fellow memory champion, Ed Cooke). The journey of a memory champion is only part of the story however, as much of the book is given to other aspects of memory. There are sections on the science of memory (we know very little), a chapter on a man (patient S) who can’t remember anything, a chapter on a man who remembered everything and there is quite a bit on the historical role of memory in society (think of it as the container for knowledge before books became widely available). Foer’s investigation into the genius memory savant Danniel Tammet also raises doubts about whether Tammet is “just” a highly trained memory expert who is cashing in by spinning his story in a different light.

As somebody with a terrible memory, I really enjoyed this book, and am almost motivated to buy a deck of playing cards and start putting some of the techniques to use! Indeed, we learn that the brain training can have a physiological impact in some instances - observations of London cabbies (only 3 out of 10 pass the knowledge after spending years trying to learn some 25,000 streets and 1,500 landmarks) showed that they had a larger than usual hippocampus. While this tells us that the human brain is mutable (‘neuroplasticity’), the brain scans of memory champions didn’t reveal anything unusual. Foer observes that this is good news since if memory champions have normal brains, then perhaps anybody can become a memory champion if they put the effort in, and he proves the case.

The historical role of memory is particularly fascinating. Foer observe that memorisation was once a widely practised art that was highly practical in an age when the written word was rare to come by. When the printing presses made books widely available at low cost after 1440, the role of the brain as a container for factual recall became less relevant, This is something I find a little sad, particularly when our memory works so well as a fantastic indexer (because memorisation is not linear, you can often navigate straight to the memory you are after).

Today, Foer notes that the focus is on reading widely and briefly (extensively), versus concentrating and dwelling (reading intensively) on books to get the most out of them and to remember more of what we have read.

Foer doesn’t go into depth on the science side but we do learn that while there is disagreement on the number of memory systems in the human brain, most agree that there are two types of memory:
“non-declarative” memories – things you remember unconsciously like riding a bike. These memories don’t appear to depend on the hippocampus for their safe-keeping. The cerebellum is key to motor skills learning, the neocortex for perceptual learning, and the basal ganglia for habits.

There are “declarative” memories, which are things you consciously recall like the colour of your car. These memories can be categorised into “semantic facts” that are free-floating (e.g. concepts such as breakfast is the first meal of the day) and “episodic facts” that are located in time and space (e.g. what I ate for breakfast and where I was when I ate it). Both rely on the hippocampus and structures in the medal temporal lobes.
One well supported hypothesis is that memories are nomadic, forming in the hippocampus and then migrating to the neocortex over the longer term as the memories are revisited and reinforced, making them permanent. Sleep is thought to be important in this process of long term memory formation.

A landmark study in 1956 by George Miller showed that in most instances, the most we can remember in our working memory is is 7 plus or minus two.

Foer notes that chess masters appear to be memory geniuses, able to play games blind, or play many games at once, but in reality this is because they have spent countless thousands of hours playing chess and have almost unconsciously learned different configurations (scatter chess pieces at random on a board and they are chess masters are reduced to mere mortals in the memory game). Similarly, experienced SWAT teams see danger a mile off based on past patterns and chunks of information.  Experts are not seeing things anew each time but are drawing on their long-term memories of past experience.

There are many tips on how to achieve a good memory for certain uses, with the memory palace being a central tool in the memory champion's arsenal. The idea here is a simple one: by planting memories and clues throughout a setting that we are deeply familiar with like our house, for example,  we can employ the excellent spatial part of our memory to recall the points more easily. If you want to get more adventurous with your setting, you can anything with multiple locations (loci) that you are familiar with e.g. buildings, journeys, the human body. You can even link multiple locations together.

When creating images for memorisation, make them powerful, incorporate smell, taste, etc. Te more extreme the image, the greater the likelihood of recall. When assigning images to cards, for example, really get to know the characters or objects and their salient characteristic. This helps to slow the rate at which the images fade.

Remembering a poem is particularly difficult compared to a list of items or string of numbers due to connecting words such as “the”, “and” etc. A mnemonic trick is to repeat a few times and convert it into a series of images. Scepsis, a contemporary of Cicero, created a system of shorthand images for the connectors.

When Foer hits what he calls the “OK plateau” he learns that he needs to increase the aspects of feedback (collect and analyse data and measure against targets and past performance). To improve you need to fail, get feedback, and use this to get better. Of course, attention is a pre-requisite to remembering.

Overall, Moonwalking with Einstein is an excellent, smoothly written book, that offers a perfect mix of personal journey, science, and insights into the quirky and nerdy world of the memory champion.
**** 1/2

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