Book Summary of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
Life gets busy. Has Moonwalking with Einstein been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
We’re scratching the surface here. If you don’t already have the book, order the book or get the audiobook for free to learn the juicy details.
Did you know that over half of people over 50 have mild forgetfulness at the time of this writing?
But, bad memory isn’t only associated with the older generation. More and more people of varying ages struggle with poor memory and forgetfulness Luckily, fixing memory issues is quite simple. Especially if you follow the tips and tricks in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein.
Keep reading to learn about the top 10 key takeaways and how to better your memory, in no particular order.
Joshua Foer: The Man Behind the Book
Joshua Foer is a freelance journalist and author who primarily focuses on science. His book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything became a no. 1 bestseller.
He is also the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a media and experiences company. Their goal is to give people a sense of wonder about the world. Foer also edited Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. This book is another bestseller, hitting no. 1 on New York Times bestseller list.
His entrepreneurial skills don’t end there, however. Foer is also the co-founder of Sefaria. This is a non-profit free culture project that is putting over 3000 years of Jewish texts online, with translations.
He is currently working on another book, which describes his travels with the Mbendjele pygmies of the Congo Basin.
Moonwalking With Einstein: A Summary
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer isn’t your typical book on science. It’s a funny, but still interesting story that follows the author, who is on a quest to discover how one can improve their memory. And no, it doesn’t have much to do with Albert Einstein.
After covering a national memory competition, Joshua Foer tasks himself with finding out how one can achieve superhuman memory. Drawing from cutting-edge research, a mass of cultural history regarding memory, and several tips and tricks from the world’s top mental athletes, Josh tells his story.
The Moonwalking with Einstein book details Josh Foer’s journey, from covering a memory competition to partaking in one just one year later. It ultimately reminds us that in all the ways that matter, we are the sum of our memories.
While it may initially come across as a self-help book, Moonwalking with Einstein is anything but. This science book lays out the facts on how to improve your memory, not implore you to do so. But, if you suddenly feel the urge to try to remember everything, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Storyshot #1: Memory Takes Training
One of the biggest claims in this book is that anyone can improve their memory. All it takes is a bit of training. Good memory is not a talent that one inherently has.
The first trick discussed in Moonwalking with Einstein is the phonological loop method. The idea is to simply repeat the things you want to remember back to yourself.
That’s it. And while this may come across as self-explanatory or rather as something one does naturally, there is a science to back up this trick. It wouldn’t be a science book without it.
The phonological loop method was demonstrated in a very classic and simple experiment. Psychologist K.A. Ericsson, along with his colleague Bill Chase, presented an undergraduate student, S.F., with a list of digits. His task was to remember them and repeat them back to the lecturers.
During the first stages of the experiment, S.F. could only remember about seven digits – an average result. But, after several hundred hours of repeating and practicing the test, they were able to improve their result by a factor of 10.
Repeating the things you want to remember for hundreds of hours isn’t the only way to train your brain. You can improve your memory in a specific field by becoming an expert in that field.
While this may seem daunting, it’s not. In the book, Foer uses a discovery by a Dutch psychologist in the 1940s as a prime example. This psychologist found that expert chess players, while not showcasing particularly good results in general tests, had what they call chess memory.
This chess memory allowed them to see the chessboard better, and in other ways, than less experienced players. Though their general memory hadn’t improved, by becoming more skilled at chess, their memory of the game improved dramatically.
Storyshot #2: You Can Trick Your Brain to Store More Memories
Repeating things in a constant cycle using the phonological loop method can help, but it can become monotonous. However, if you change how your brain stores information, remembering it is much easier.
In Moonwalking with Einstein, one method is called chunking. This simply means to group things into chunks or bigger pieces, so they’re easier to remember.
One of the key factors of chunking is language. In the book, Foer describes the task of remembering the 22 letters in HEADSHOULDERSKNEESTOES. If you break up these letters, you’ll see they from the words heads, shoulders, knees, toes. By grouping them together, each letter in each word becomes much easier to memorize.
Elaborative encoding is another way to “trick” your brain to remember things better. This method encourages people to make the information as vivid as possible. The main idea is to turn the information, which is usually boring, into something fun, vibrant, and a thing you couldn’t possibly forget.
You can do this with everyday life and in simple ways. Our brains are encoded to remember what our senses tell us, like the way certain things smell. We can easily implement this with everyday tasks – like shopping lists.
Let’s say we need to buy some cottage cheese, salmon, and a jar of pickles. We can trick our brains to remember these things by implanting a vivid image in our minds. Imagine the jar of pickles on your bedside table, and next to it, a plate of very smelly cottage cheese. And next to that, sits a bathtub with a gorgeous person bathing with a salmon.
This image is entirely outlandish and vivid enough that you’ll remember all three items when you go shopping next.
Storyshot #3: We Remember Things Unconsciously
One of the key takeaways from this book is that our brains remember things unconsciously. Moonwalking with Einstein details a special amnesia case of a patient known as E.P.
E.P. became an amnesiac after the medial temporal lobes of their brain (which are vital for memory) were damaged by a virus. But, despite E.P. not being able to recall any newly learned information, their brain does so unconsciously.
In an exercise, E.P., along with several other patients, was given a list of words to memorize. However, unlike S.F, E.P. forgot the words, and the exercise entirely.
They were then placed in front of a monitor, where 48 words were flashed for 25 milliseconds each. While seemingly fast, the idea was so that the eye could catch some, but not all.
Of the 48 words flashed in front of E.P, half were new, and the other half were on the previous list. After the flashing sequence, E.P. read the words out loud. Interestingly enough, they could recall the words they’d seen before far better. Without E.P. knowing, the words left an impression on their brain.
Everyone is able to remember things consciously and unconsciously. A key example of this is muscle memory – like knowing how to swim and ride a bike. Memories like these are known as nondeclarative memories. These are memories that exist within our brains, but can’t be recalled at will.
The opposite of these memories is declarative memories. We have to actively think of them to recall them. Things like the color of our cars or remembering what happened the previous day are declarative memories.
We need to be able to utilize both declarative and nondeclarative memories to have a true working memory.
Storyshot #4: The Ancient World Believed Good Memory Was an Important Skill
In a world where information is always at our fingertips, it’s no wonder people’s memories are deteriorating. But in the good ol’ days, before modern technology and the advent of the internet, having a good memory was extremely vital.
The ancient world relied on people with a good memory to carry on with oral tradition and rely on people’s history and culture. Key examples of these are minstrels and bards in ancient Greece, who told stories of Greek mythology.
A good memory was also vital for survival. For example, people needed to remember safe routes home or which plants were edible or poisonous. They used techniques that we recognize today, such as elaborative encoding to actively remember all the important information.
Storyshot #5: The Printing Press Made Good Memory Less Important
The main question then is, what changed?
Interestingly, the reason why modern society has such poor memories is linked to books. You read that right.
Before books came scriptures. In the ancient world, scriptures were seen as sorts of “key cards,” They were filled with information that readers were expected to know. They weren’t easy to read and often times the format was impossible to understand.
The “key card” format of scriptures was encouraged because reading was discouraged. Famous philosophers, like Socrates, often refused to even learn how to write as they believed it would foster forgetfulness. They believed that a decline in intellect and morals would then occur as a result.
However, everything changed with the advent of the Gutenberg press in 1440. As a result, reading became popular across the classes, but the art of memory began to decline.
People were no longer expected to recall things from memory. Instead, they could pull the information they needed from the pages of a book.
In the modern day, we store or pull all necessary information in smartphones and the internet, as well as books.
Storyshot #6: The Current Education System Doesn’t Teach Good Memory Techniques
As great as it is to have information at our fingertips at all times, it’s extremely detrimental to our ability to memorize things. And despite this being a well-regarded fact, the current education system isn’t doing anything to fix the issue.
Our kids are taught to rote learn things when it comes to learning things for school. This technique doesn’t improve memory, instead, it makes storing facts much harder.
Foer describes a few examples of why rote memorization doesn’t work. But the bottom line is that this technique weakens people’s ability to memorize things.
Moonwalking with Einstein highlights the need for schools to teach better and more effective ways to memorize facts. Not only will this facilitate better memory, but help kids achieve better in school.
Storyshot #7: Use Imagery to Remember People’s Names
Remembering people’s names is something the majority of us struggle with. Luckily, the book gives us a trick on how to better remember someone’s name without much fuss.
The trick uses the baker/Baker paradox, which shows us that our brains remember things when they’re in context. The baker/Baker paradox came about when two people were given the same picture of a man. One was told the man worked as a baker, while the other was told his surname was Baker.
After some time, the research showed that the first person could easily recall the man’s occupation. The second person, on the other hand, couldn’t remember the man’s surname.
When something is given to us in context, a lot of associations are triggered in our brains. In the case of the baker – we probably think of the smell of freshly baked bread or the look of a large white baker’s hat. Again, we’re using our senses to store the information in our brains.
So the next time you need to meet someone new, make associations with their name and something vivid and memorable.
Storyshot #8: Create Rooms in Your Brain to Remember Facts
Transforming abstract ideas into memorable forms is one of the key focuses of this book. While this in itself can better your memory, being able to store it effectively is also very important.
This is where memory places, as Foer describes it, come in.
Memory places or the method of loci is a method that was predominantly used by Roman scholars. The method assigns every image you create a specific spot along a well-known route within your mind. Our brains are very good at remembering places and locations, so this method is highly effective.
The key to the method of loci is to mentally place an image of the thing you want to remember along a familiar route or in a familiar room. For example, picture the thing you need to remember and mentally place it along your route home, or on the dresser in your room.
You can use this technique with things like shopping lists. Mentally place the items on the list on your kitchen counter. When it comes to recalling these items from memory, it’s much easier.
As long as you know the route or place well, the method will work wonderfully.
The Key Message of Moonwalking with Einstein
The ability to memorize things has declined as the world has evolved. We no longer prize the ability to recite stories and texts from memory. Instead, we rely on books and technology to store all our vital information.
But, having a good memory is still important. It not only helps kids achieve better in school, but it also aids in our everyday lives.
With the techniques described in Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstien, you can learn simple and easy techniques to better your memory.
Moonwalking with Einstein Quotes
“The techniques of the memory palace — also known as the journey method or the method of loci, and more broadly as the ars memorativa, or ‘art of memory’ — were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the MIddle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Roman senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesman Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books”
The Man Who Remembered Too Much
“For all of our griping over the everyday failings of our memories — the misplaced keys, the forgotten name, the factoid stuck on the tip of the tongue — their biggest failing may be that we forget how rarely we forget.”
“The brain makes sense up close and from far away. it’s the in-between — the stuff of thought and memory, the language of the brain — that remains a profound mystery.”
“The brain is a mutable organ, capable — within limits — of reorganizing itself and readapting to new kinds of sensory input, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.”
“It’s all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name.”
– Joshua Foer #moonwalkingwitheinstein
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“Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They hone in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most importantly, 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.”
“Our ability to process information and make decisions in world is limited by a fundamental constraint: We can only think about roughly seven things at a time.”
– Joshua Foer #moonwalkingwitheinstein Click to Tweet
“Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? I don’t mean time in the sense that, say, physicists speak of it: the fourth dimension, the independent variable, the quantity that compresses when you approach the speed of light. I mean psychological time, the tempo at which we experience life’s passage. Time as a mental construct.”
– Joshua Foer #moonwalkingwitheinstein
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– Joshua Foer #moonwalkingwitheinstein
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“As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory.”
“To our memory-bound predecessors, the goal of training one’s memory was not to become a “living book,” but rather a “living concordance,” a walking index of everything one had read, and all the information one had acquired.”
– Joshua Foer #moonwalkingwitheinstein
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