OK, we have the kind of heavy stuff behind us. Now we’re going to sneak in a few books that represent the lighter side of summer—kind of like the Bomb Pops of my childhood, but less likely to make a sticky mess on your hands.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Joshua Foer (@joshuafoer)
We’re in the knowledge management business, a big part of which is capturing tacit information from peoples’ brains and gathering them together in a shared repository of explicit knowledge. In other words, “knowledge base good; memory bad.”
So it feels almost just a little naughty to explore the outer fringes of human memory, and how it can be trained to do seemingly impossible things, for example, to memorize the order of the cards in multiple decks—in minutes.
I admit I’m a sucker for participatory journalism—give me George Plimpton taking on a prizefighter, or A.J. Jacobs living strictly according to the Bible for a year any day of the week. Joshua Foer’s initial article about the community of competitive memorizers turned into an intense, year-plus training regimen that culminated in his winning the US Memory Championships.
As a guy who routinely forgets where he parked his car, the things memorizers do seem nearly impossible. But as you learn techniques of memory palaces, subject-action-object schemas, and the other tricks of the trade, you learn that it’s not impossible for any of us to perform great feats of memory. It’s just hard. Really hard. “Mental athletes” (in their words) need to build up remembered analogs of physical places, so they can store memories in specific “places” (for example, the front porch of their childhood house) and recover them by “walking” through them in a consistent order. The memories themselves are converted into memorable scenes—the more bizarre, the easier to remember—like the book’s title. Through a series of memorized associations, Michael Jackson (Moonwalking) is one playing card card, and Einstein is another. It’s easier to remember Jackson and Einstein moonwalking on your front porch than it is to remember the three of clubs and the five of spades. Or so says the book: my attempts didn’t go very far, but I didn’t work at it very hard, either.
As for me, I’ll stick with the knowledge base. But it’s inspiring to know that a journalist who can’t remember his grocery list can turn into a memorization champion. Oh, except, unless he applies these techniques, he still forgets his grocery list.
ps – “Menlo Park” is where Edison invented the light bulb. And, as every student of US history knows, Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as US president on July 10, 1850. So, to remember all the details for our upcoming KCS workshop, just think how astonished President Fillmore would be to use an electric light to read the KCS Practices Guide!