Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Quotes: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking With Einstein was reviewed earlier here. Here are some notes and passages from the book, copied out for posterity .... because I can't remember them without writing them down : S The scanned pages at the very end include some details on the various techniques used by memory experts.

“In a sense, the elaborate system of externalised memory we’ve created is a way of staving off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.”

“The externalisation of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship… What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity.” – In Ancient Rome, memory training was on par with grammer, logic and rhetoric as a key skill.

“For normal humans, memories gradually decay with time along what’s known as the “curve of forgetting”. …No matter how many times he (German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus) performed the experiment on himself, the results were always the same. In the first hour of after learning a set of nonsense syllables, more than half of them would be forgotten. After the first day, another 10 percent would disappear. After a month, another 14 percent. After that, the memories that were left had more or less stabilised - they became consolidated in long term memory – and the pace of forgetting slowed to a gentle creep.

The secret to success in than names-and-faces event – and to remembering people’s names in the real world – is simply to turn Bakers into bakers – or Foers into Fours. Or Reagans into ray guns. It’s a simple trick, but highly effective.

One of the many mysteries of memory is why an amnesic like EP should be able to remember when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima but not the much more recent fall of the Berlin wall. For some unknown reason, it’s the most recent memories that blur first in most amnesics, while distant memories retain their clarity. This phenomenon is known as Ribot’s Law…it suggests something profound: that our memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

But in the process, we also transform the memory, and reshape it – sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened. …How this works at the level of neurons is still a mystery.

Though chess might seem like a trivial subject for a psychologist to study … (De Groot) argued that expertise in “the field of shoemaking, painting, building [or] confectionary” is the result of the same accumulation of “experiential linkings”. According to Ericsson, what we call expertise is really just “vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.” In other words, a great memory isn’t just a by-products of expertise; it is the essence of expertise.Grand masters literally see a different board.

Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have remember by increasing the size of each item. Chunking is the reason that phone numbers are broken into two parts plus an area code and that credit card numbers are split into groups of four. …The classic explanation of chunking involves language. If you were asked to memorise the twenty-two letters HEADSHOULDERSKNEESSTOES, and you didn’t notice what they spelled, you’d almost certainly have a tough time with it. But break up those twenty-two letters into four chunks…and the task becomes a whole lot easier.

The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don’t memorise all types of information equally well.

The me who exists today and the me who existed then, if put side by side, would look more than vaguely similar. But we are a completely different collection of molecules…What binds this me to that me, and allows me to maintain the illusion that there is continuity from moment to moment and year to year, is some relatively stable but gradually evolving thing at the nucleus of my being. Call it a soul, or a self, or an emergent by-product of a neural network, but whatever you want to call it, that element of continuity is entirely dependent on memory.

The ancient and medieval way of reading was very different from how we read today. One didn’t just memorise texts; one ruminated on them – chewed them up and regurgitated them like cud – and in the process, became intimate with them in a way that made them one’s own. As Petrarch said in a letter to a fried, “I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow.”  - Foer discusses how the religious texts, and classics such as Homer and the Iliad were most likely remembered by memory. Apparently Peter of Ravena, author of “Phoenix”, would read books that he stored in his memory and boasted memorisation of some 20,000 legal points along with 200 of Cicero’s speeches and 300 sayings of philosophers, amongst many more things.

It is hard to feel as though a tremendous devolution has taken place between that Golden Age and our own comparatively leaden one. People used to furnish their minds. They invested in the acquisition of memories in the same way we invest in the acquisition of things. But today, beyond  the Oxford examination hall’s oaken doors, the vast majority of us don’t trust our memories. … How did our culture end up forgetting how to remember?

We read and read and read, and we forget, and forget and forget. So why do we bother? Michel de Montaigne expressed the dilemma of extensive reading in the sixteenth century: ‘I leaf through books, I do not study them’, he wrote. …He goes on to explain how ‘to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of memory,’ he adopted the habit of writing in the back of the book a short critical judgement, so as to have at least some general idea of what the tome was about and what he thought of it.’

 “…They did away with rote memorisation and replaced it with “experiential learning”. …Schools have deemphasised raw knowledge (most of which gets forgotten anyway) and instead stressed their role in fostering reasoning ability, creativity and independent thinking. ..But is it possible that we’ve been making a huge mistake…the fact is facts still matter. If one of the goals is to create inquisitive, knowledgeable people, then you need to give students the most basic signposts that can guide them through a life of learning. And if, the twelfth-century teacher Hugo of St.Victor put it, “the whole usefulness of education consists only in the memory of it” then you might as well give them the best tools available to commit their education to memory.

…perhaps Daniel Tammet exemplifies an even more inspiring idea: that we all have remarkable capacities asleep inside of us. If only we bothered to awaken them.

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