No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information.
According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable.
According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image–the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts.
In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure.
Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers.
He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories.
The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer–wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else.
Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds.
While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought.
One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms.
There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants.
Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations.
Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek’s or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters.
In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case.
What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles.
Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity.
In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with.
Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience–the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory–always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another.
When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards.
In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable.
When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.