Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein is Joshua Foer's memoir of his experience going from a journalist covering the world memory championships to becoming a competitor himself and winning the U.S. memory championships.

Along the way, Foer covers deliberate practice, and even provides a few tips on how to overcome plateaus. At one point, his speed in memorizing numbers stopped improving, and upon asking for help from an expert, was told to approach it differently (instead of directly trying to improve his time, tried to memorize more numbers in the same amount of time, which would inevitably lead to failure, which actually created more learning), which overcame his barrier. This is good stuff, and well worth reading.

He also describes Daniel Tammet (who wrote Born on a Blue Day). He presents compelling evidence that Tammet wasn't an Autistic Savant as he claims in that book, but rather, a normal person who secretly practiced memory techniques in order to pull off the stunts and claims that he was in fact, an Autistic Savant. This is huge as well.

There's the usual coverage of well-known memory techniques, like memory palaces, and the social scene revolving around the posturing and out-psyching of each other that you would expect to find at top level competitions. Even then, the behind the scenes look at the memory championships makes you realize something --- even these experts have to triage on what to remember. In one of the events, Foer basically gives up on memorizing phone numbers and won simply by becoming lucky enough to never be called on to remember them!

In the end, however, Foer realizes (and even says it outright) that while becoming the U.S. memory champion was a great experience in and of itself (it's pretty impressive to be tops at anything in the US), the memory techniques he learned didn't really help out in day-to-day life: he still forgot where he placed his car keys and other random mundane things, which was one of the primary drivers for him to try to improve his memory in the first place!

Finally, he explains why most people find that "time passes faster as you get older":
“In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out,” he wrote. “But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older (Kindle Loc 1157)
 In other words, if you want a subjectively longer life, have more fresh experiences rather than allow your life to become routine. I've often had this experience during a tour: 2 days ago feels like ages ago, and a week ago might as well have been a lifetime, yet every memory is fresh when I go back to write it up. Life lived intensely is memorable and easy to recall, while the routine gets compressed and lost in time.

I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Recommended!

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