Off the Shelf: Moonwalking with Einstein

Are you a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock? In several episodes, he mentions in passing his Memory Palace. In each episode, we see him scrolling through a virtual screen of memories, reorganizing them, putting them together in different ways until the solution finally comes to him, seemingly out of nowhere. I thought the “Memory Palace” was something they had made up for the show, until I read Moonwalking with Einstein.

This easy-to-read book tells the story of a reporter, Joshua Foer, as he learns what a Memory Palace is and how to use it to remember things. He starts in a place where I often find myself: grasping to remember names or smacking myself on my forehead for getting all the way to the store without my credit card. Noticing a picture of “The World’s Strongest Man” Foer wonders if there’s a way to measure “The World’s Smartest Man” and stumbles across a memory champion. He decides to meet this “freak” and finds a guy – in fact, a whole host of guys – who describe themselves as “mental athletes” and compete to see who can remember the most random things (lists of telephone numbers or the order of  a deck of cards) with amazing results. Foer is seduced by the idea and starts training to compete. During his year-long journey he visits a Human Performance Lab (part of FSU), learns about the memorization techniques of ancient oral poets (in which I was surprised to find him referencing a book that holds a favorite spot on my shelf, Albert B. Lord’s, The Singer of Tales, which I bought during a crazy moment where I decided I would memorize The Aeneid, of which I remember precisely two lines even now, but it was worth it because I ended up reading this book, which Foer summarizes nicely), and discovers what a Memory Palace is and how to use it to remember things.

Basically (and this is very condensed), a Memory Palace is a virtual representation of a place that you are intimately familiar with, the example they start with in the book is your childhood home, which you populate with visual bookmarks of the things you want to remember. So, to use the example in the book, you place the first item on your grocery list at the end of your driveway, the second item at your front door, the third in the coat closet, etc. To make the visual bookmarks stand out, you make them as crazy as possible because the brain remembers wacky things better than normal things: so you make the jar of pickles so big that it blocks the door and you have to move it out the way to get in; you hang the fish from the chandelier over the dining table and make it sing its name to you, etc. You take whatever time is necessary to bookmark these images throughout the memory of your house, probably growing faster with practice (think of Sherlock standing at the crime scene, holding up a finger to silence Watson, while his eyes flicker). Then, when you want to remember your grocery list, you start walking through your Memory Palace, room by room, picking up your bookmarks, one by one.

Sounds simple and it works well enough – with more advanced techniques coming later – for Foer to actually win the U.S. round of the memory competition. Despite his accomplishment, in the end he finds that he still forgets names and, at one point, goes out to dinner and forgets not where he parked his car, but that he had driven the car to the restaurant at all. In other words, useful for remembering things like grocery lists or poems, but not so applicable with the mundane aspects of daily life. Alas.

His journey is amusing and, along the way, leads through theories on how the brain works, why we remember and forget things, what makes people so good at things (see my blog about The Talent Code) and other interesting stuff.

If nothing else, learning about the Memory Palace will give the next Sherlock marathon a whole nother level of mind-blowingness.

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