Monday, October 24, 2011

Moonwalking With Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein is a very thought provoking book. It's the story of the author Joshua Foer, a journalist, and his journey from reporting on the US National Championship to winning the event the following year. The book chronicles how he set out to find an answer to the question, "How can I improve my memory?"

Personally, I was intrigued by the book and found the style of writing much to my liking. There is a lot of research and information that is presented and explained via story. It reminds me a lot about how JD Roth from GetRichSlowly was able to successfully blog about potentially dry topics in personal finance: he tells a story.

This book is not a book on technique and specific practice regimens, but a treatise on how our memories work, how memory usage has changed throughout time, and the exploration of how practice can indeed improve memory skills. Some of the skills employed in memorizing decks of playing cards, scores of random numbers, or other random trivia, in less than a minute involve the image association and storing those images in a 'memory palace'. While impressive, I wondered whether practicing this skill was ultimately useful. Surprisingly, even the author, shortly after winning the US National Championship, placing 13th overall in the World Championships, Joshua Foer conceded that in today's world of externalized memory storage, it's just easier to store that phone number in your cell phone than your brain.

US Hardcover, pg75
What follows are just my notes that I took while reading that I wanted to save for myself.
Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? The more we provide our lives with chronological landmarks, the longer our lives will seem. Our perception of time is subjective. Sometimes time flies, other times the opposite is true. "Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive." The denser the web of accumulated life experiences, the denser the experience of time. "Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it." "Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. Youth have a continuous stream of new experiences, but 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...

US Hardcover, pg 138
Technological gadgets have made it unnecessary to remember phone numbers, friends birthdays, and even directions. They've changed the world, but they've also changed how we think and how we use our brains. Writing, for Socrates, was nothing more than a cue for memory.

And yet, for me, I've always held to the idea that I read in one of Tom Clancy's novels - if you didn't write it down, it never happened. For me, writing is the only reliable anchor that I can attach to my memories so they don't get lost in all that grey matter.

US Hardcover, pg 145
The history of books and the invention of alphabetical indexes, page numbers, and table of contents as a means to navigating the immense information stored therein. "As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory."

US Hardcover, pg169
Joshua Foer also became a subject of research to a Florida professor, Anders Ericsson. When Joshua hit a plateau on his speed times for memorizing a deck of cards, Ericsson helped him learn about skill acquisition. Phase one is the "cognitive stage", you're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second "associative stage," you're concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the "autonomous stage," when you figure that you've gotten as good as you need.." You're OK with your current skill and stop improving and were once thought the upper bounds of ability. The only way to break free is to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson, who has studied the best in several fields, has labeled "deliberate practice." "They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the "cognitive phase." "When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important that the amount of time you spend." "Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual's chess skill is not the amount of chess he's played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he's spent sitting alone working through old games." "You have to analyze what you're doing."

US Hardcover, pg 202
In these pages, Tony Buzan's Mind Map was explained, and it reminded me of when I was writing my research paper in my college English class. My professor explained to me that after reading my paper she felt like the opening scene in the Simpson's show when the cash register trys to scan Maggie at the checkout with the groceries, but the computer is confused and doesn't know what to do. Her advice to me was that I needed to go home and read each paragraph and color code it to it's theme and then cut up my paper and rearrange it so that it flowed better and made better sense. I took her advice - and it worked! This was essentially the groundwork of a mind map. "It's kind of an outline exploded radially across the page in a rainbow of colors, a web of associations..." Tony Buzan also said, "The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity
is, in a sense, future memory."

US Hardcover, pg 266
He had improved his ability to remember digits, playing cards, and yet could still forget where he parked his car. His memory was the same. He had new skills, but ultimately he "validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it's the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice." "Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice." "Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character... That's what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."


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