Moonwalking with Einstein

Not many people know that Einstein actually invented moonwalking, most people assume it was Michael Jackson – but I digress.

Ok, this is the title of a book by Joshua Foer where the author chronicles his experience with the US and eventually the World Memory Championships.  It’s really interesting to see pop-psychology books like this when they come up, and it’s wonderful when they’re written well enough to appeal to a larger audience than simply psychology nerds such as myself.

Book Stats

271 pages

Non-fiction

Enjoyment

The book starts with Foer as a young journalist who is looking into the US Memory Championships, while there, he meets a couple of international competitors who are observing the contest and develops an interest in the methods they use.  The overarching ‘story’ running through the book is about Foer practicing and then ultimately competing in (and winning) the US contest.  But while he’s describing this, he goes into a lot of the history and research behind the idea of memory, and how we can use mnemonic devices to help increase our memory.  (Pickled garlic, cottage cheese, smoked salmon, six bottles of white wine, and three pairs of socks.  Yes, it makes perfect sense in the context of the book.)

The basis for how memory is improved by the competitors is to use mnemonic devices and to visualize what you’re talking about by placing the objects you need in a ‘mental palace’ so that you can remember it later.  The list in parenthesis from the previous paragraph is one that he discusses in the book, and he encourages you to try and remember it by placing the objects in your ‘mental palace.’  In my case as I was reading along, the pickled garlic was at the end of my driveway, the cottage cheese at the steps leading up to my front porch, the smoked salmon was hanging from the cat tree just to my left after walking in the front door, the wine bottles are stopping the cat from eating the salmon, and the three pairs of socks are hanging on the railing next to the steps leading to the second floor of my house.  I actually missed a really good opportunity to use the mailbox just outside the front door, but my example shows basically how the process works.

The book also deals with the history of mnemonics, education in schools, the business of selling memory improving techniques, and the plateau that many people reach when dealing with any subject.

The chapter about the OK Plateau is arguably the single most important chapter in the book.  In this chapter Foer discusses a time when he was having difficulty in improving his speed in memorizing a deck of cards.  His coach in the memory competition told him that to improve he needed to stretch himself and to try and memorize the deck even faster than he was, so that he was able to find out where he was making his mistakes.  The main point of this chapter is something that I’ve come across a couple of times online, and it’s one of the first points that I make to people when I coach them bowling.  There is a difference between simply performing at the level that you’re accustomed to and good focused practice.

Most people when they say they’re going to go practice are simply bowling, they bowl a regular game, and take the results they get.  But then they wonder why they aren’t getting any better, why they keep missing 10-pins, and it’s because their “practice” isn’t focused, it’s just a general performance.

There is a lot of interesting information in this book, and Foer is a very capable writer who is able to give you the information so that you’re able to understand it without choking on it.  He also includes a lot of psychological research and a lot of anecdotes – from his own experience as well as that of others – to emphasize his point.  The best compliment I can give for this book is that his writing style is very similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, and Gladwell is arguably the best non-fiction author of the past 10 years or so.

Overall Grade

There is a lot of depth and a lot of research in this book, but you’re never bogged down by it.  Foer is an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

10/10

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7 Comments

  1. This sounds great!

    Reply
  2. I really enjoyed this book, and I often use the ‘memory palace’ technique now for my grocery list.

    Reply
    • I’m sure it works a lot better than simply trying to remember a list.

      Reply
  3. A ten out of ten. I may have to look into this one. I do enjoy non-fiction and reading things on occasion that are not my “norm.” Not sure I really have a norm anymore, but I digress. Thanks for the review Adam.

    Reply
    • I’m a psychology nerd and this was a very well written book dealing with the subject of memory. I’d highly suggest this on it’s own and if you enjoy it I would also suggest the books by Malcolm Gladwell.

      Reply
  4. I read a review on this a while back and added it to my TBR queue because of it. Your review just bumped it up the list!

    Reply
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