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

By Marie Arana
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.

There are, too, master chess players who can remember every move of a match weeks or even years after the event. They become so skilled at recalling positions that they can take on several opponents at once, moving the pieces in their heads, with no physical board before them. There are London cabbies with such intricate maps committed to memory that their brains have enlarged right posterior hippocampuses. There is the child relegated to "the dunces' class" because he cannot perform school tasks well, although he can identify distant birds by how they fly, having memorized dozens of flight patterns.

Foer sets out to meet the legendary "Brainman," who learned Spanish in a single weekend, could instantly tell if any number up to 10,000 was prime, and saw digits in colors and shapes, enabling him to hold long lists of them in memory. The author also tracks down "Rain Man" Kim Peek, the famous savant whose astonishing ability to recite all of Shakespeare's works, reproduce scores from a vast canon of classical music and retain the contents of 9,000 books was immortalized in the Hollywood movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

When Foer is told that the Rain Man had an IQ of merely 87 - that he was actually missing a part of his brain; that memory champions have no more intelligence than you or I; that building a memory is a matter of dedication and training - he decides to try for the U.S. memory championship himself. Here is where the book veers sharply from science journalism to a memoir of a singular adventure.

Foer enters the strange and hermetic world of mental athletes, the great majority of whom are white males living on the margins of society - jobless, eccentric, superstitious - who know each other's weaknesses and strengths as well as any Homeric hero might know his enemy. Foer learns to anchor memory to the visual, to shut out all sound when concentrating, to blinker himself. He masters the art of building memory palaces, on whose imaginary walls he hangs impossibly long lists of complicated data. The more vivid and lewd the associations he assigns, the more easily he can access the information. Numbers become people; images come alive; Foer remembers a sequence of three cards by visualizing himself moonwalking with Einstein.

As Foer explains it, what makes our brains such extraordinary tools is not just the volume of information we are able to store, but the ease and efficiency with which we can locate it. Look no further than your own head to find "the greatest random-access indexing system ever invented" - a search engine of amazing proportions. No computer you can buy will come close to replicating it.

In the end, "Moonwalking With Einstein" reminds us that though brain science is a wild frontier and the mechanics of memory little understood, our minds are capable of epic achievements. The more we challenge ourselves, the greater our capacity. It's a fact that every teacher, parent and student would do well to learn.

The lesson is unforgettable.

bookworld@washpost.com

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post.

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