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How Joshua Foer Remembers Everything

I’m picturing a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. His muscles are gleaming from a newly re-touched spray tan. Of course, he is wearing a Speedo: how else would one show off their muscles to the fullest extent? Young Arnold Schwarzenegger is in a Speedo, flexing, glinting in the sunlight with every turn. He’s on my front porch (should I have mentioned that first?) He’s on my front porch and chalky white vitamins are raining down on him from a pill container that hovers overhead. Arnold Schwarzenegger is bathing in beautiful white pills on my front porch and…

“Yeah,” says the voice over the phone. “Yeah, so, exactly, to remind yourself that you want to take home the vitamins on your desk, you want to make them bigger, stranger, more colorful than just a bottle of vitamins. You’ve got to create an image that sticks.” The voice prompting me to commit these foul mind-crimes at work is Joshua Foer, who I’ve called to interview about his new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin, 2011).

“Did you choose that title because it’s so visual in itself?” I ask. “Of course!” he replies, “that’s the whole point! It’s supposed to be a memorable title. It’s hard to picture Einstein moonwalking with a diamond glove and penny loafers. THAT image should just stick!” I tell him I was actually picturing Einstein bouncing around on the surface of the moon, but… “Well shit,” exclaims Foer, “you’re the second person to say that! I guess Michael Jackson occupies a strange piece of my subconscious, because I grew up in the 80s and watched too much TV.”

Michael Jackson moon-walking, Bill Clinton copulating with a basketball, Dom DeLuise hula-hooping, these images only partially explain how Joshua Foer, just two years out of college, spent mostly a few minutes in the morning “training” his memory for one year yet managed to win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship. His path to that win lays the groundwork for Moonwalking with Einstein, a book as much about Foer’s own experience as it is about “the subject and science of memory, and our culture’s changing relationship to it throughout history.”

“Originally, I had gone to the U.S.  Memory Championship to write an article,” explains Foer, “and ended up getting sucked in to this strange world of people who get together and try to remember lots of random stuff– who use ancient memory techniques, and are trying to resurrect an old way of thinking about memory.”

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Foer explains that our intellectual capacities today are no different from men living in the fifth century B.C. What is different is the way in which we use (or don’t use) our memories. We have a lot more to remember these days—one of the reasons why we rely so heavily on books, cameras, the internet… Unfortunately, in relying on these crutches, we may be missing out on vital real-life experiences or knowledge that we might one day need.

Foer’s journey brings him into contact with savants like “Rain Man” Kim Peek, college professors studying skill acquisition, survivors of diseases that have all but destroyed their abilities to remember almost anything, and a cast of characters (mostly men), “widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep,” whose aim is “to rescue a long-lost tradition of memory training that had disappeared centuries ago” with the advent of writing, the printing press, and now, Google search.

“Our memories are indeed improvable, within limits” writes Foer, and the skills of those “memory champions” competing for national and international titles “can indeed be tapped within all of us.” It is “simply a matter of learning to ‘think in more memorable ways’ using the ‘extraordinarily simple’ 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the ‘memory palace.’”
It was thanks to this technique that Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up on my doorstep, bathing in One-a-Day Women’s vitamins. The “memory palace,” explains Foer, is a place in one’s mind where images can be stored along a route, through a house or a neighborhood, for instance, with each image corresponding to something you are trying to memorize. The lewder, funnier, and more ridiculous the image, the easier it sticks.

So has he written a self-help book? A how-to guide for “remembering everything?” Can students across the country all achieve IQs worthy of MENSA? While “one of the teachers I write about uses memory techniques in his history classes, and his kids all do incredibly well on the Regents Exams,” says Foer, “memory is about a whole lot more than names and dates. We structure our experience of time around our memories. One of the lessons I’ve drawn is that it’s really important to just pay attention.

Of course, names, dates and numbers are what got him the title of 2006 U.S. Memory Champion, after beating out his competitors by memorizing long series of random digits, playing cards in random order, etc. So with all of this training, does he always remember every item on his grocery list? “No…” admits Foer, but it’s “awareness that is ultimately at the root of all memory. What I hope anyone would take away from this Moonwalking with Einstein is to make an effort to have memorable experiences. It’s the memorable experiences that stick.” Like that time I discussed an almost-nude, glistening Arnold, with a married writer, over the phone, while in my boss’s office… at work? Maybe that’s one to try to forget.

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