Josh Foer’s book starts out by looking into an esoteric competition featuring mental athletes competing in various memory competitions. Along the way, he discovers interesting mnemonic tricks for memorizing various types of things and follows a group of people who frequently compete in these events. With dedicated practice, he uses this effort to win the United States Memory Championship just a year later!
While Foer’s book documents his journey in becoming a mental athlete, it also features a number of interesting asides that dive into the latest research in memory and explores how and why humans are good (and not so good) and remembering various types of things.
The book opens with what seems like a non-sequitur:
“Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds). Michael Jackson (king of hearts) has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). Rhea Perlman, diminutive Cheers bartendress (and queen of spades), has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol (seven of clubs) in a highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress (three of clubs).”
You read this and immediately think, “what?!” But! There’s a method to this madness. It’s a specific technique that Foer describes later in the book. He’s built a “memory palace” to make recalling a list of items easier. It’s something I hadn’t heard of before and is an interesting concept.
Foer describes a memory palace as:
“The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the “method of loci” by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a “memory palace.”
When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.
The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I was learning, is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Which is why Tony Buzan tells anyone who will listen that the World Memory Championship is less a test of memory than of creativity.
When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.
While there’s no secret to easily unlocking a flawless memory, I found this book really enjoyable to read and thought some of the techniques for recall were pretty useful.
As far as the title of the book goes — it ultimately has nothing to do with Einstein. It’s related to using a mnemonic technique he used for remembering a set of cards (in this case, a four of spades, king of hearts, and three of diamonds).
“Moonwalking with Einstein” image generated using Midjourney AI.
Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer