Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Report!

I read a lot of books. Most are not (ahem) quality literature, but rather involve some sort of law enforcement official tracking down nefarious characters. Or they're chock full of beautiful images of  unobtainable magic gardens that feed a family of six from a quarter acre of moondust, or some such nonsense. Sometimes I read books that were once blogs (lucky lovely writers with great ideas)! Every once in a while I dust off my brain cells and wander into a so-called "classic." Or non-fiction.

I picked up a book at the library that appealed to one of my biggest afflictions - my utterly crap memory. I'd heard Moonwalking with Einstein reviewed on npr, and it piqued my interest. Supposedly about the science of memory and the notion that it can be improved, I thought that it might help me fend off all of those "Hey, do you remember when you were little and...." stories from my mother and/or childhood to which I usually respond with a vague "Hmmmm..." before smiling and changing the subject. Sadly, this book will not help me with that. BUT! It is a fascinating tale about the journey of someone with much the same issues with their own memory, and what he (author Joshua Foer) discovered while trying to improve it - notably, a strange and somewhat obscure sport populated with intriguing characters, savants and shysters. After a visit to the U.S. Memory Championships, Foer is drawn into the world of mental athletics, and immerses himself in its culture. He learns centuries-old tactics for memorizing names, places, random numbers and cards in an attempt to master the sport, with the end goal being to win the next competition.

Throughout the book, the one thing that is driven home is that memory can be improved. Anyone can learn how to memorize lists, numbers, and names, but you have to pay attention. Remembering things is hard work, and you have to think about it. One of the techniques used by Foer and other mental athletes is to store information in a set of mental images, built using a familiar structure. Called a "memory palace," the idea is to visualize an object inside of a room or other place that you are very familiar with, and later use that to recall whatever information resides there. I tried it, following instructions in the book, and was able to recall a shopping list a few weeks after memorizing it. Success! However, considering I spent nearly 20 minutes building my memory palace to start with, it's not really efficient, and you have to remember to remember it. So it's not like you get to throw away your calendar and post-it notes for reminders, which is what I think we'd all like to be able to do.

Memory is a funny thing. I will likely not ever remember half the stuff from my childhood (sorry Mom), but random moments are stuck in my head forever. Sometimes forgetting is merciful, sometimes time takes the very things we'd like to hold onto the most. Science may never figure it out completely, and that makes memory fascinating. I guess the trick is to live a memorable life. even if you forget half of it.


  1. Let me know if it works...especially with names. So bad with those. Or biological functions, not good at remembering those either. Or where I put my damn keys. Oh never mind...I'll just stick to my random lists & post-its, and accept that I probably have beginning stages of alzheimer's. :)

  2. I'll start building...tomorrow, or when I find the time. Could it be a small cottage instead of a palace do you think?