Moonwalking with Einstein and learning to remember


I recently read Joshua Foer’s excellent book, Moonwalking with Einstein. The book, very much in Gay Talese fashion, relates the story of a resporter who goes to investigate the goings on of an international fellowship of “mnemnostists;” that is, professional rememberers. I’ve long had an interest bordering on obsession as pertains to memory. I’ve always wanted to remember more, in more clarity and to assemble the world’s languages with Mentat-like skill. But alas, I appear to be wired with commodity hardware (like most of us).

Foer, very much a mortal, suggests that astounding levels of memory retention can be attained by embracing the wisdom of the ancients and using the memory technique known as a “mind palace” or, as it was known to the Romans, memoria loci (contra memoriam verborum, for verbatim text).

The method is fairly simple. Imagine places that you commonly encounter: the houses along your daily walk, the items that fill a bedroom, rooms in your home, etc. Then goal is to imagine a place or a route that you know by heart based on frequent exposure at a subconscious level. Now at each of these locations (loci) imagine a visually-arresting image (violent, sexual, rare, surprising) in great detail (detail is important). Use this to engage your primal visual memory processing unit. As savannah bipedal mammals we are well attuned to processing visual data of the nature described, associating it with a location, and remembering that pairing (“whoa, hot chicks there” or “man, more people disappear forever when they go hang out by floating lizard swamp over there”). You might be surprised that it’s actually easy to remember things when applying this method.

One of Foer’s teachers recommends images such as “Claudia Schiffer bathing in a playpool of cottage cheese” (Sulu-Voice: “Oh my”). In this case that image is used to help the teacher remember his grocery list. The author used “Moonwalking with Einstein” to remember some more abstract concept (ergo the book’s title).

Eventually, we are told, one may grow in proficiency such that one need not use actual rooms or items as a memory palace. Indeed one may memorize a fictitious memory palace and then “peg” the images to objects located therein. One might imagine a chateau of Louis XIV style and in that palace one might store memories about French vocabulary (apropos, non?) with the help of the licentious goings on of Benjamin Franklin and Kate Upton (the old rake surely would have been up to that, I’d wager).

Mediation I: The Euopean Desolation of Native American Memory Routes

Another variation on the memory palace is the memory journey: “at the at front door, at the sidewalk, at the mailbox, stop light, at the intersection, etc.” Foer suggests that cultures with rich oral traditions like the plains Native Americans might have used their land to remember powerful oral wisdom.

I read that and had to take a minute. If this were to be borne out, by taking the land, foreign invaders not only took the livelihood (buffalo) and the resources but took away the mental hooks, the loci in their oral tradition, that provided access to their cultural memories.

Not only did they die, but their repository died with it. It’s grandmas hard drive full of photos meeting a steamroller with smallpox. Is it any surprise that the memory walk to Oklahoma, full of its travails and misery is called the Trail of Tears?

Meditation II: The Peripatetic Schools

I remember being quite struck by the historical fact that Aristotle preferred to teach his lyceum while walking about (peripatetic). It’s funny to think that now in this day and age we buy expensive “walking desks” which put a treadmill under the feet of people who work at a standing desk. In any case in the time before books, the time of scrolls, one might imagine that Aristotle (and surely others before him) taught his students to consider and remember an argument by means of walking.

To rehearse, to recall, to remember the lessons, the Stagyrian sage might have said “And when we come to this statue here in this grove, we recall its fourth cause, its telos, its final cause” and then a few stadia later “and now we consider….” And thus the students, to remember, would only need recall that lovely day in summer when the fragrance of the olive trees hung heavy to rehearse and recall the lesson in causes. This would also help ease the bafflement of philosphy undergrads who constantly wonder while reading the Physics, “why does this guy love statues so much?”

Not only would the walking keep the students' minds sharp, but he would have taught the students how to build their mind palaces so that his lessons could remain sharp, firmly writ in their gray matter.

Meditation III: Religion

Indeed what is good for the philosopher is surely also true of the oral traditions of the religions of the world. While I’m no scholar of world religion, I can see how a religious organization might seek to build edifices full of rich hooks for memory palaces. I can see St. Peter’s in Rome, the Wailing Wall, a pagoda, a ring of Tibetan prayer wheels. In those religions' oral traditions these structures could be overlain with lessons and become memory palaces. Heck the engineers of these palaces might well leave thematic hooks behind to help keep the story alive in the memory of the patron. Consider the themed and decorated naves in a cathedral full of families' plaques and religious artwork.

Meditation IV: Google Glass and Augmented Reality

While considering the previous meditations I began to see memory palaces as a form of augmented reality. The physical world would be overlain with a mnemonic world.

Isn’t that what Google Glass and Yelp’s Spyglass feature do? They allow us to look through another (physical) lens and see our world as bearing a second, personal rich world of data. A memory road (via memoria? “a walk down memory land?") allows an augmented world of memories to be rekindled en promenant).


The book elicited these questions and took some time to delve into the asides about where our society lost interest in remembering and tells the story of Foer’s competition in the memory contest. All in all it was very enjoyable.

I’m looking forward to trying to remap my physical reality into a rich memory palace. Remember there are many who have memorized the whole Koran, there’s no reason we all shouldn’t have the ability to encode and