Joshua Foer's 'Moonwalking With Einstein,' on the nature of memory

Moonwalking With Einstein
Moonwalking With Einstein (Penguin Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 4:50 PM

MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

By Joshua Foer

Penguin Press. 307 pp. $26.95

It's hard to imagine a world in which all you can do with a thought is recall it: a world in which written words do not exist and the only way to hoard knowledge is to remember. That may sound like an extravagantly imagined story by Philip K. Dick, but once upon a time, long ago, before Gutenberg, before alphabets, before scribbles on cave walls, it was so. Memory was all the information we had -- and we were very good at holding on to it.

These days, it seems, we hardly remember anything. We have gadgets that do it for us: day planners, GPS devices, cellphones that log every number we've ever called, tiny motherboards with gargantuan gigabyte capacities. We're lucky if we know five telephone numbers by heart. A recent survey revealed that a third of all British citizens under age 30 couldn't remember their home phone numbers without checking their mobiles. Thirty percent couldn't remember the birthdays of more than three family members.

But the devaluation of memory has deeper cultural implications: Fully two-thirds of American teenagers do not know when the Civil War occurred; one-fifth don't have a clue whom we fought in World War II. Why waste brain cells on remembering when we can summon facts so easily on our cellphones?

Now comes science writer Joshua Foer - a formerly absent-minded young man who became the 2006 U.S. memory champion - to argue that in exchange for scientific progress, we may have traded away our most valuable human resource. Can you name the 44 American presidents? Can you list the capitals of all 50 states? Chances are you can't. And yet if you can read this review, your brain may have the capacity to recall 50,000 digits of pi, permanently commit to memory 96 historical facts in the course of five minutes, maybe even memorize every line of Yeats's mammoth poem "The Wanderings of Oisin."

"Anyone could do it, really," says the reigning world memory champion, Ben Pridmore. More likely, if you are like the rest of us, you will spend - according to Foer - a staggering average of 40 days a year making up for everything you've forgotten.

Foer, who was born in Washington, is the brother of former New Republic editor Franklin Foer and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. He chanced upon the U.S. Memory Championships in Manhattan in 2005 while doing research for a story about Pridmore. "The scene I stumbled on," he writes, "was something less than a class of titans: a bunch of guys (and a few ladies), widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep, poring over pages of random numbers and long lists of words." One year later, after grueling months of training, Foer won that competition by memorizing a set of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds, breaking the American record. But the book that he offers us is far more than a personal chronicle of that triumph.

Devalued though human memory has become, it is what makes us who we are. Our memories, Foer tells us, are the seat of civilization, the bedrock of wisdom, the wellspring of creativity. His passionate and deeply engrossing book, "Moonwalking With Einstein," means to persuade us that we shouldn't surrender them to integrated circuits so easily. It is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind.

In the course of "Moonwalking," we learn that our brains are no larger nor more sophisticated than our ancestors' were 30,000 years ago. If a Stone Age baby were adopted by 21st-century parents, "the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers." The blank slate of memory hasn't changed one bit, except that we've lost the incentive to use it to store large amounts of information. As one of Foer's fellow mental athletes puts it, in the course of ordinary modern life, "we actually do anti-Olympic training . . . the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes fifty cigarettes . . . and spends the rest of the time watching television."

Foer introduces us to memory prodigies such as the young journalist S, who irked his employer because he took no notes but could memorize 70 digits at a time, reciting them forward and backward after one hearing. He could replicate complex formulas, although he didn't know math; was able to repeat Italian poetry, though he spoke no Italian; and, most remarkable of all, his memories never seemed to degrade.

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