Moonwalking With Einstein Book Notes

Posted on October 16th, 2012

Book: Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

History of Memory

Memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics.

Roman orators argued that the art of memory, the proper retention and ordering of knowledge, was a vital instrument for the invention of new ideas.

Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.

Memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable.

What one memorized helped shape one’s character.

By telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.

You make monkeys memorize, whereas education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it.

Natural Memory vs Artificial Memory

The natural memory is that memory which is embedded in our minds, born simultaneously with thought.

The artificial memory is that memory which is strengthened by a kind of training and system of discipline. In other words, natural memory is the hardware you’re born with. Artificial memory is the software you run on your hardware. Artificial memory, the anonymous author continues, has two basic components: images and places.

Images represent the contents of what one wishes to remember.

Places or loci, as they’re called in the original Latin are where those images are stored.

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.”

It’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily. The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.

The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Animate images tend to be more memorable than inanimate images. Create images of exceptional beauty or singular ugliness, to put them into motion, and to ornament them in ways that render them more distinct.

Memory Perception

Sigmund Freud first noted the curious fact that older memories are often remembered as if captured by a third person holding a camera, whereas more recent events tend to be remembered in the first person, as if through one’s own eyes. It’s as if things that happened to us become simply things that happened. Or as if, over time, the brain naturally turns episodes into facts.

Childhood Memory

As infants, we also lack schema for interpreting the world and relating the present to the past. Without experience and perhaps most important, without the essential organizing tool of language infants lack the capacity to embed their memories in a web of meaning that will make them accessible later in life. Those structures only develop over time, through exposure to the world.

The vital learning that we do during the first years of life is virtually entirely of the implicit, nondeclarative kind. In other words, everyone on earth has had some taste of EP’s condition. And like EP, we’ve all forgotten what it’s like.

Memorable Life

I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer, Ed had mumbled to me on the sidewalk outside the Con Ed headquarters, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go? And how are you going to do that? I asked. By remembering more. By providing my life with more chronological landmarks. By making myself more aware of time’s passage.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next and disappear.

That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human, said Ed.


Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways. They can overcome one of the brain’s most fundamental constraints: the magical number seven.

Expertise is really just vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.

Great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise; it is the essence of expertise.

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.”

How To Remember Better

Make memorizing a part of my daily routine.

So much of remembering happens at the moment of encoding, because we only tend to remember what we pay attention to. Attention, of course, is a prerequisite to remembering.

Take meaningless bits of information, run them through a filter that applied meaning to them, and make that information much stickier.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered.

The 4 Minute Mile

The barriers we collectively set are as much psychological as innate.

For a long time, people thought that no one would ever run a mile in under four minutes. It was considered an immovable barrier, like the speed of light. When Roger Bannister, a twenty-year-old British medical student, finally broke the four-minute mile in 1954, his accomplishment was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world and hailed as one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time.

But the barrier turned out to be more like a floodgate. It took only six weeks before an Australian named John Landy ran the mile a second and a half faster than Bannister, and within a few years four-minute miles were commonplace. Today, all professional middle-distance runners are expected to clock four-minute miles and the world record has fallen to 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds.

Episodic vs Semantic Memory

Episodic memories are located in time and space: They have a where and a when attached to them.

Semantic memories are located outside of time and space, as free-floating pieces of knowledge.

Self Improvement

Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.

Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing. One way to do that is to put yourself in the mind of someone far more competent at the task you’re trying to master, and try to figure out how that person works through problems.

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.

Time Perception

What binds that me to this me, and allows me to maintain the illusion that there is continuity from moment to moment and year to year, is some relatively stable but gradually evolving thing at the nucleus of my being. Call it a soul, or a self, or an emergent by-product of a neural network, but whatever you want to call it, that element of continuity is entirely dependent on memory.

Reading Books And Remembering

Mere reading is not necessarily learning a fact that I am personally confronted with every time I try to remember the contents of a book I’ve just put down. To really learn a text, one had to memorize it.

The ancient and medieval way of reading was totally different from how we read today. One didn’t just memorize texts; one ruminated on them, chewed them up and regurgitated them like cud, and in the process, became intimate with them in a way that made them one’s own.

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