Moonwalking with Einstein: Memories In the Making

On our way to Germany for ski week, on board Norwegian Air, I thumbed through the In-Flight magazine, annoyed by the absence of leg room, the teenager bumping my chair playing his handheld and the nuisance of not having a TV in (HELLO!) the 21st century. It was then that I came across an article that made me forget all of that; it was about the 2013 World Memory Champion, Jonas von Essen – a Swede who outperformed 120 mental athletes from 32 different countries. Okay, so not the Olympics, but still, I was hooked.

Thanks to a lagging delay on the tarmac, I had time to download the book referenced in the article, “Moonwalking with Einstein.” I was intrigued. Not only had Jonas von Essen memorized thousands of binary numbers in 15 minutes and 132 dates in 5 minutes and the order of 28 decks of cards in 1 hour, he was also normal. No photographic memory, no extraordinary IQ, not even a touch of autism. Not a savant, normal.

What’s more, brain studies show that most of these memory champions are like you and me: they lose their keys, forget where their car is parked and open the fridge and can’t remember what they wanted…that kind of normal.

So how does a normal person go from not remembering their kid’s cell phone number (guilty as charged), to remembering pi up to the 32,000th digit?

It does take some mental effort, but not the kind you’d imagine. It’s actually more about creativity than memory. According to the article, it’s about creating mental pictures and associations for numbers to give the brain something more colorful and exciting to hold onto as opposed to something…well, forgettable.

Josh Foer, the US Memory Champion in 2006, chronicles his experience, and that of others training for the competition in his book, “Moonwalking with Einstein.” It’s a fascinating read and while I don’t aspire to memorizing the order of poker cards or hundreds of faces and names and birth dates of people I don’t know, I would like to remember the names of people I do know and the important dates in history on the off chance I ever happen into the Cash Cab in New York.

More importantly, memory is about embracing life more fully. It’s about having a “well-stocked shelf” of knowledge, stories, poems and facts you can bring into conversation or use to make connections between ideas.

As a species we’ve gone from passing down our history orally, to storing our memories externally on things like hard drives, clouds, and iPhones. It’s nice not to have to remember all of our events marked on the calendar or birth dates or favorite quotes, but Foer makes the case that the externalization of memory misses out on an important function, connections.

Computers can’t make connections between ideas, that is what thinking is for. If we no longer have a foundation of memories to connect between, we lose the rich context of life, living as it were, in the moment, more “cheaply,” multitasking our existence.

Having lived with a grandmother who died of Alzheimer’s, I’m keenly aware of what is lost when one forgets everything. In a matter of months I went from being a beloved granddaughter to becoming a forgotten face, a girl, a stranger, not a loved one. As memory goes blank, so do our lives. Memory, it seems, is the sum total of who we are. If that’s true, then why not invest a little in making the best memory you can possibly make?

Tony Buzan, founder of the World Memory Championship, and author of 120 books on the brain and memory, promotes, Mind Mapping. It’s an ingenious little technique (even if he is a rich eccentric), that anyone can use to map out what they want to recall. A Mind Map looks similar to a spider, or a tree. It starts with a circle in the center of a piece of paper, a key word inside, and from there ideas radiate outward like spokes on a wheel, only curvy spokes. Buzan is opposed to lines of any kind, or lists. He says, “The brain is attracted to curves,” what we see in nature. Also the more colorful the better.

Buzan’s idea is not exactly a new one. Making vivid image associations is as old as language and story. The ancient orators, renowned for their story telling abilities, used “Memory Palaces,” to store images in their minds, pictures within spatial rooms, thereby retelling the story as they moved through their minds using their locations to remember the words. It’s not unlike how we physically store items in locations throughout our home, only in this case, the home exists in the mind and becomes a visual storehouse.

To explain this another way, Foer shares the following experiment. A group of people were shown a picture of a man and told to remember his name was Baker. Another group was shown the same photograph and told to remember the man was a baker. The second group recalled the word “baker” 2:1. It’s because baker is filled with associations: smells, tastes, feelings linked to bakeries. Our brain forms deeper attachments to memories that have multiple links to our senses.

Putting some of this to the test, I wondered if during my week in Germany, I could, in a matter of a few minutes each day, memorize a poem. What if instead of needing to look up online, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, I could find it already in my memory?

I began, like my brilliant friend and actress Bethany suggested, “Snow-balling.” She memorized hundreds of lines for her one-woman, two-act play using this technique. Starting with the first line, I’d say it aloud, then add the second line, and so on, repeating from the beginning, adding as I went. If I made a mistake, I’d start over from the first line.

In addition, I made vivid pictures in my mind of the poem’s forest, the smell of the woods, the yellow leaves crunching beneath my steps, the anxiety of looking down two roads, not knowing which to take. I brought associations to life, linking words to pictures, and in effect, creating a story.

It took some time, but at the end of the week, I’d accomplished my goal. Before we left the hotel to board the plane back to Sweden I made my four kids sit on the hotel bed and listen to me recite my poem from memory. (They probably wished I’d have skied instead of reading in the hot tub, but they kept their strange looks to themselves—bless them.)

What took me a week, takes a memory champ only a few minutes. Memory champions are remarkably adept at conjuring images and storing them in spatial “palaces.” They train 4-5 hours a day, like any other athlete, only their training is generally at a desk wearing hearing protection and sometimes blinders, to minimize distractions.

Nelson Dellis, the 2011 USA Memory Championship winner, continues to train but also uses his notoriety to promote his non-profit charity “Climb for Memory,” dedicated to his grandmother who died of Alzheimer’s. Whether he’s climbing Mt. Everest or ascending the challenge of another memory tournament, to me it’s equally remarkable.

While I’ve got a few more poems on my mental list to memorize, along with some history dates and other trivia I’d like to remember, what I care about most is creating a lasting mental picture of the here and now: what it feels like to be in Sweden, my son at the age of eighteen before he leaves home in the fall, the color of the water outside my window on a summer’s day, the sound of Maggie’s laughter, and all of the ordinary moments that get lost in between the To Do List. If I can put aside distractions and really focus with intensity on my family, maybe I can remember more, experience more, and forget less. A memory is a great thing to have. Making the effort to fill it with the people and things you love most is what remembering is all about.

2 Comments on “Moonwalking with Einstein: Memories In the Making

  1. Fascinating. I had no idea. I’ve run into Tony Buzzan–he creates a wonderful product called iMindmap. There are lots of mindmap/brainstorming programs out there, but his is the most visual. I tried to get my school to purchase it, but they were too shortsighted.

    Great article.

    • Wow that’s so sad. Why aren’t schools embracing these concepts? It’s baffling to me that we have this kind of knowledge and we refuse to use it. It’s like the Allegory of Plato’s Cave–it’s easier to remain seated naming shadows instead of walking into the brighter light of day and finding truth.

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