Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Reviewed on , book by Joshua Foer

This is a book review turned rant. I often hear ‘good memory is useless with technology’ or ‘memory techniques are tricks, but wouldn’t add value to my life’. I think both of these are wrong. I’ve been spending this Christmas understanding more about memory because I think there’s significant leverage in being productive with these techniques.

I have varies situational checklists. If I am about to buy something, I ask myself simple questions such as “Would I buy this again if it broke?”, “Have I wanted this for more than a month?”, “Does this replace something I already have, or does it add a new need?” and “If I get this, will I have to resist the urge to get 10 other things to go along with it?“. I have checklists for making decisions: “What would change my mind about this decision?”, “What alternatives have been seriously considered?” and “What can we do to get our feet wet, without jumping in heads first?“. I have lists of the mental models, principles and cognitive biases that I use on most problems I face: inversion, second-order effects, black swans, survivorship bias, antifragility, conditioning, fundamental attribution error, and so on. I have a 20+ point checklists for reviewing code.

The problem with these lists is that they’re stored in an app on my phone. I only run through them on occasion, despite finding value every time I do. It’s difficult to condition myself to use them as often as I’d like. In the middle of a discussion, it’s disruptive to pull up a list on your phone and work through it. With a memory palace, I can install these checklists in my head to run through at any point in time.

I’ve started doing this since reading the book and it’s provided the impetus to finally adopt memory palaces into my day-to-day. I don’t have many of them yet, in fact, the only one is a subset of my list of mental models, principles, and biases. I’ve built this on a couple of streets in the city I grew up in. I start the memory palace in the parking lot of my kindergarten. There, I see a bunch of people doing headstands. It reminds me to attempt to invert the problem. On the sidewalk, I see a bunch of domino pieces falling. This prompts me to consider second-order and third-order thinking. I look over the fence, inside the kindergarten. There’s a tall, blue tower and I see a monkey throwing carrots. That means I should think about what the incentives are in the problem at hand. Do the incentives of the systems line up with those of the individuals? I keep walking and see a massive, exponentially shaped slide, thinking of compounding. Soon enough a black swan jumps out, causing me to think of Taleb’s black swan. I see clocks on the pavement and I think of whether everyone is operating on the same time-scale, or if the disagreement is formed because some are thinking on a 1-month time-scale, and others on a 1-year time-scale? I see a barbell, think of antifragility. A plane, and think of survivorship bias. I have about 20 mental models and biases incorporated in this model so far.

This may seem slow, but in fact, I’d be able to name all of the models in seconds. It’s extremely fast to run through this list. Adding new models is only getting easier, too.

Remembering numbers and card games isn’t particularly useful for me, but these are just easy-to-evaluate tests for a competition format to test how productive someone is with memory palaces. They don’t do the techniques justice. As you use these techniques more and more, it becomes easier to form mental images to build palaces. I’m only a week in, and I’m already building small palaces for the books I’m reading and vocabulary I’m currently learning. This makes it easy to go through it when you aren’t reading the book.

Fundamentally, as a result of reading this book and other resources on memory, I’ve come to think of a brain as a data structure with the following strengths:

* Great at building associations
* Extremely visual and spatially oriented
* Good at appending, poor at updating, mediocre at recall

Boiling memory down to these limitations makes it easier for me to understand why palaces are so useful. The brain is poor at lists and numbers unless packaged into visual, spatial and associations—for which the memory palace is a fantastic technique. If you think of building memories in terms of these strengths, it makes a dramatic difference.

I like the book because it has a compelling narrative. The problem with it is that it doesn’t go deep enough into how to use memory day-to-day, despite my hypothesis that it is useful in day-to-day life. Adopting these techniques is hard work, don’t read the book if you don’t see any use for it. But if you do, this is a fantastic place to start. Something I found incredibly surprising is that we used to be much better at remembering than we are now. In ancient greece, they had perfected these techniques to remember. Before the printing press, getting your hand on a book was rare. When you did, you made sure to memorize as much of it as possible. With Gutenberg, we had the first wave of suppressing the importance of memory. The second wave came with smartphones and the Internet, where everything seems to be just seconds away. I certainly agree that this changes things in terms of what we need to remember, but I feel that strategically applying these techniques would yield great results. I look forward to see if I’m still using them months and years from now.