Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

David Byron recommended Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything last week, and I finished it yesterday.

The basic setup: the author meets some of the top "memory athletes" the world, and decides to train for a year to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships.

If you think that sounds dull, you are entirely mistaken.

The history of memory techniques is utterly fascinating, and author Joshua Foer does a terrific job of putting them into context. I had no idea, for example, that students of most eras received detailed training in memory techniques, because almost nothing was available in written or printed form. Everything was spoken narrative, and if you forgot something, it was gone--there was no place you could go to look it up.

He also goes into detail about the "method of loci", also known as the Memory Palace, the preferred technique used by ancient Greeks and Romans for memory storage and retrieval. Here's a description from Wikipedia:
In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.

The history and use of these techniques is fascinating, as is the author's attempt to participate in memory championships after learning how to use these techniques himself.

It's a great read, and I am committed to at least learn the techniques to the level necessary for me to memorize a randomly-shuffled deck of playing cards. The look on Eli 10.3s face would be priceless.

If you have any interest in how the mind works, or the role that memory techniques played in history--seriously, how can you have no interest?-- then this book is an immediate must-read.

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