Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Our long overdue comeback post is on a wonderful book titled "Moonwalking with Einstein" written by Joshua Foer. The book is described as writings on the "art and science of remembering everything".

While the book does a wonderful job of describing the artistry involved in enhancing one's memory,  and it does provide a (necessarily) coarse introduction to the neuroscience of forming long term memory (and losing it) in a layman terms; it is much more than just about the art and science of memory. It is partly autobiographical and presents the author's arduous journey from a common man who is fascinated with the art of mnemonics to taking part in the finals of the American memory competition. It is partly about the history of how we as a civilization have learned to forget thanks to the invention of external memory devices that are all around us in modern technology. 

The History of Forgetting:
Our memories have evolved to remember things that we can see or visualize - a tiger in a jungle was dangerous to a man living in the medieval ages and he better remember how a tiger looks. Memory was very important in ancient times when man hadn't yet learned to read or write. It was the only way to pass knowledge and our cultural know-how from generation to generation. 

And then something we take for granted everyday in our life happened - writing was discovered. While writing (and reading) was initially more of an art and could only be performed by a small minority, the advent of the printing press made books accessible and reduced the importance of memory due to the presence of external aids. As modern technology continues to pervade our culture and increasingly substitute our memories, the art of remembering has been forgotten.

Memory or rote learning has also got a bad name in society with our education system focusing on the processing of information rather than on remembering it.  While Joshua and a few others do say that knowing how to remember is important in society, I as a scientist, tend to lean on the side of understanding rather than remembering (especially as Google remembers everything). Joshua Foer foresees a not too distant future in which technology directly communicates with our brains and information is directly accessible to our brains - making memory all but a forgotten skill.

The Art of Memory:
The book presents the similarity between the art of remembering and synesthesia, which is a neurological condition that enables a person to visualize (and in some cases smell) every word in a sentence or every event that takes place in his/her life, enabling people with synesthesia to have excellent memories. The memory palace technique that Joshua talks about in his book is based on the mimicking the state of synesthesia by visualizing everything you see or hear.  In order to make a memory stick, these visualizations are performed at a locus that are locations within a house (called the memory palace) that the person has seen in real life.  The weirder or funnier the visualizations, the more it is likely to stick.  In fact, Joshua makes a case for seeing sexy women in weird poses in order to make memories stick (an example that did stick in my mind even a week after reading the book is visualizing Claudia Schiffer in a bath tub filled with cottage cheese to remember that he has to buy cottage cheese in his to do list). 

The technique also involves visualizing numbers (or playing cards) one wants to remember. A person develops a system whether a two digit number (or cards) is typically replaced by an image in the memory palace. So, a person has a particular image for each number from 00 to 99 (or all 52 cards).  While this is tedious at the beginning,  Joshua takes us on an amazing journey in this book during which practice converts him (average in terms of memory at the beginning of the book) to one with extraordinary recollection.  Joshua is himself able to remember a whole deck of cards in about a 100 seconds by the end of the book during the memory competition.

The Competitive Spirit:
Joshua also provides a glimpse to the mindset of a person who is competing in a national event. He talks about practicing and hitting the okay plateau beyond which he found it difficult to improve. The okay plateau is what we invariable hit after repeating a particular sport or action many times and we cannot improve beyond this point just by normal practice. Experts use deliberate practice in which they practice on the bits they keep failing at (or are not an expert on) to improve beyond the okay plateau. He also talks about his efforts to improve his concentration, diligence to practice every single day, and his attention to compare his performance with his competitors add to the aura of the book.

What I found fascinating about the book was Joshua Foer's attempt at what he calls participative journalism.  In the sciences, this would be equivalent to a journalist performing the experiments to have a deep understanding of its caveats in the findings before writing an article about it (and wouldn't that kind of science journalism be refreshing in this day and age? - this could solve a number of problems in science). No doubt he has shown that the art of mnemonics is accessible to the average human being provided (s)he is ready to practice and put effort into becoming an expert at it.