Quick: Can you list all the American presidents in order from first to most recent? How about most recent to first? If I say “pi,” is your first thought “I can recite that to 200 places” or “I’ll take mine with whipped cream”?
There are people for whom these questions are taken very seriously, and their sport is competitive memory. Journalist Joshua Foer set out to cover the U.S. Memory Championship, and ended up so obsessed with the culture and rituals of memorizing that he competed in the 2006 Championship himself. Moonwalking with Einstein chronicles his training, explains many of the techniques that memorizers use—the title refers to one of Foer’s visual cues—and looks at some of the people for whom these aren’t skills but a lifestyle.
Unsurprisingly, the people who gravitate to memorization are an eccentric lot. Foer befriends some competitors from the World Championship, and they’re a wild bunch. There are also many hucksters out to resell widely known information about memorization in the form of books, videos and live seminars. What is surprising is how easy the basic techniques are to learn. Virtually anyone can create a “memory palace,” visualizing a place they know intimately, then stocking it with vivid images to help recall information. It’s just a matter of consistent practice and making the images as striking as possible—which often means sexually explicit (some of Foer’s cues are both filthy and hilarious). Yet these techniques aren’t the cure-all that some might hope: After studying like a madman and competing in the U.S. Championships with impressive results, Foer goes to dinner with his parents and takes the subway home . . . where he realizes he had driven his car to the restaurant and forgotten all about it.
So why would anyone want to recite pi to 10,000 places anyway? We have so much technology storing our memories for us; what’s the point of using antiquated skills? Foer finds one answer in the case of an 84-year-old man who, due to illness, has no short-term memory at all. He occasionally eats breakfast three times in the same day, and is touched to the point of tearing up each time someone mentions that he has grandchildren, since he’s just learning of their existence for the first time. Foer describes him as attaining “a kind of pathological enlightenment, a perverted vision of the Buddhist ideal of living entirely in the present.” Our memories hold the content of our relationships and give us a context in which to view it—all the more reason to fine-tune this important and easily honed skill.