Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein inspired Whopper at the Whopper Investments blog to develop a process of deliberate practice after he read the book.  This in turn, inspired me to develop a more deliberate practice regime for myself.  The passage that inspired Whopper concluded that it’s not the number of hours that one practices that makes you an expert but it’s the kind of practice you engage in that makes you an expert.  While the passage that inspired Whopper to begin a deliberate practice process resonates with me, journalist Joshua Foer’s journey and reporting of the world of memory enlightened me.  For someone like myself that hates rote memorization, Moonwalking with Einstein shows that there is another and better way to consciously remember.

Foer neatly ties the history of memory techniques, academic research on memory and his imbedded reporting as a participant in the U.S. Memory Championship into an easy to read story.   Foer begins with the ancient Greek story of the origins of the Memory Palace, a memory technique where you visualize each item you want to remember by placing them in a specific location in a building that you are very familiar with.  After nearly two decades of formal education, this alone was news to me especially as I have discovered that the ancient Greeks considered the art of memory as one of the building blocks of the art of rhetoric, a subject sorely missing from our educational system.

Foer meets with K. Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University professor now famous for showing that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert.   Foer volunteers to be studied by Erickson’s Human Performance Lab as he starts to prepare as a complete novice for the U.S. Memory Championships.   The book takes us on an entertaining journey as we learn about historical studies on memory and we meet current case studies like EP, a well-studied case of memory loss and Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rainman.

While anecdotal, the author’s first hand account of his journey from being of average memory to being able to perform savant like skills is inspiring.  If it is to be believed that Foer has average memory, than it is possible for most of us to develop the skills necessary to remember the order of deck of cards in less than a minute or remember one hundred names and faces in fifteen minutes.   In a world where massive amounts of information is available to us with a push of a computer button, these skills seem ancient.  Surprisingly they are.

The ancient Greeks and the civilizations that followed them used memory techniques on a daily basis up until the time the printing press was invented.   Once the expense of archiving information declined through the use of the printing press and now through the computer, our memory is less and less necessary for storing data or stories internally in our minds like our ancestors did.   While there are clear advantages to this, there are disadvantages also.  How do we experience our own lives and how do we learn if our memories are stored outside our brain?  After all, is it really your life story if you can’t remember it but have to read it from a book?  How can you learn words if you have to reference a book to remember the alphabet?  Memory is vitally necessary for learning.

Experts see the world differently according to the research by Professor Ericsson.  It is not because the experts have better memories.  While their memories in their fields are exceptional, their memories else where are merely average.  That is because they are remembering things in context, not isolated facts.  This is why the memory techniques are so useful.   You can remember things in context.  If I think of the number two as a swan because of its shape, I can then visualize a swan floating in the water along the shore in Key West to help me remember the number two.  If I’m trying to remember the number 28, then I can also think of a street performer juggling an hourglass since the number eight looks like an hourglass.   This helps me remember the number because the images are in context of a trip to Key West I made years ago where my wife and I sat along the shoreline at sunset watching street performers.

To be a good investor, there are some things we need to know cold.  These cornerstone building blocks are where these memory techniques can be beneficial.  By having the key concepts memorized, it frees us up to think more about important concepts rather than struggling to recall the fundamentals.  Surprisingly, creativity is bolstered by the memory techniques because we learn from the techniques that the more creative an image we use to remember an item, the easier it is to remember.  Having the key concepts memorized frees up your mind to work on how those concepts interplay with each other.  At the same time, as seen by the research on experts, remembering patterns is a key characteristic of experts.  It’s one thing to have experience and another to remember those experiences.  Those that remember the experiences have an advantage.

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