Monday, April 8, 2013

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein is subtitled "The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." Perhaps more accurately, if less appealingly, it could be subtitled "How I Trained for a Year and Won the US Memory Championship."

Foer is a lively and interesting free-lance writer. His book is a sprightly trip into the history and current state of human memory and memory research. He describes the US and European memory championships (what's the use of being able to memorize a deck of cards in less than a minute if you can't use it to compete with someone?). He gives a general overview of memory issues today (are smart phones, electronic calendars, and Google killing our need to memorize and therefore our memories?). He meets an elderly man who has no short-term memory whatever. At the other extreme, he meets a savant who claims to have memorized six thousand books word for word. He visits the class of Raemon Matthews, an American history teacher at the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the South Bronx, who is teaching memory techniques to his students to help them pass the Regents exams and compete in the Memory Championships. And he interviews Tony Buzan who has built an empire and a fortune by teaching memorization.

"Everything about Buzan gives the strong impression of someone wanting to make a strong impression. He never swallows a syllable or slouches. His fingernails are as well cared for as the leather of his Italian shoes. There is always a pocket handkerchief tucked neatly in his breast pocket. He signs his letters "Floreant Dendritae!"—"May Your Brain Cells Flourish!"—and ends his phone messages "Tony Buzan, over and out!"

The "tricks" for improving your memory (of certain things) have been known for a couple thousand years. I don't think there is anything new about how to improve your memory, and Moonwalking with Einstein is not really a how-to book anyway. Foer does describe a some of the traditional ideas: associate an object with a place in a building (build a memory palace); connect numbers with objects; and repeat, repeat, repeat.

I had hoped I would learn some tricks to make my goal of reading Japanese easier—or possible. The Chinese characters used in Japanese are a challenge for most Westerners. Most characters have at least two sounds depending on how they are used; you have to know the number of strokes and the order in which they are written; and you have to know what they mean.

For example: 小 can be read as "ko" in 小川 ("kogawa" or small river) or as "chii" in 小さい ("chiisai" or small). It has only three strokes. The challenge grows when you encounter characters like 感、職、親、待、持. A man named James W. Heisig developed an entire system to help Western students of Japanese to memorize the characters' shapes and meanings; I don't think the system helps with the sounds, however, and there's nothing in Foer's book that will help either—except constant practice.

Indeed, in an Epilogue he asks if his year of intense training culminating in his win at the US championship improved his memory. "By every objective measure, I had improved something . . . Compared with my tests almost a year earlier, I could recall more lines of poetry, more people's names, more pieces of random information thrown my way." Yet a few nights after the championship he had dinner with friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as he was walking in the front door that he'd driven a car to dinner. "I hadn't just forgotten where I parked it. I'd forgotten I had it."

Nevertheless, the experience "had validated the old saw thgt practice makes perfect. But only if it's the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious deliberate practice. I'd learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things." Even learn to read Japanese.

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