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Moonwalking With Einstein

written by Matthew Rensberry, MD MBA on 2015-09-30

I just read Moonwalking with Einstein - a book that describes Joshua Foer's journey from visiting a memory championship to write about it as a journalist, through his acceptance of a challenge to compete and becoming the US champion one year later. While it is the story of this journey, it is truly a story of memory. How the ability to remember is what gives meaning to our lives and shapes our perceptions of the world. How changing technologies and social evolution continues to adjust our ability to memorize and what we memorize.

"Our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses, in a continuous feedback loop. Everything we see, hear, and smell is inflected by all the things we've seen, heard, and smelled in the past." p67

"How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories." p269

This is important as he mentions reading how the average person loses 40 days a year compensating for things they have forgotten. p6

Memory is the key to becoming an expert. Experts "use their memories to see the world differently" compared to non-experts. p62

Later in the book, he entered a subject that fascinated me called the "[OK Plateau]." This is the "point at which you decide you're OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving." p170 This is not necessarily purposeful. To surpass it, you need to do [deliberate practice] - keeping something out of that autopilot so you can improve it. Experts and pros do this.

"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." p171

"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." p172

One thing I took from this book is that we memorize and remember the things we take notice of. If we think it is important and spend a little time in our own head concentrating on it, we build neuronal pathways we can later draw back on. He mentions the use of this phonological loop - term for that voice in your head as you talk to yourself. p61

"Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice." p268

Taking notice helps notice patterns and structure. "Finding patterns and structure in information is how our brains extract meaning from the world." p128

I found the time Joshua spent on how memory affects our perception of time as interesting. I love the thought of investing in experiences over things. This is another reason to back that philosophy up. "[Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it]. ... 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]." p77

"Life seems to speed up as we get older because life get less memorable as we get older." p77

I have written before about my concerns with externalizing all our thoughts and memories. "We are moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all encompassing external memories that record huge swaths of our daily activity." p156

I worry about that, as memories are what give you that psychological time in life - externalizing allows forgetting, which makes life less fulfilling.

"Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are." p270

That last statement is likely the key to the whole book.

Some strategies he describes to memorize things that I want to remember follow:

The key to remembering people's names is to "associate the sound of a person's name with something you can clearly imagine." p44 - Baker/baker paradox

Memory palace p98
"The principle of the memory palace, is to use one's exquisite spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally. ... The crucial thing [is] to choose a memory palace with which [you are] intimately familiar." p98

Choosing your imaginary images p128
"Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don't; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory."

Major System to remember numbers p164
0 - S
1 - T or D
2 - N
3 - M
4 - R
5 - L
6 - Sh or Ch
7 - K or G
8 - F or V
9 - P or B

ie: 7065 -> 70 65 -> KS ShL -> Kiss Shell -> Image of kissing a sea shell

PAO system p165
Each double digit number from 00 to 99 has an associated image of a person-action-object so combining 3 double digits would combine the person of the first set, action of the second, on the object of the third.