Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: The rise and fall of internal memory. The rise of books, the internet and digitalisation have created a world of external memory that has gradually supplanted our internal memory.
#2: The science of memory systems. Our memories can be divided into declarative and non-declarative memories. Both categories have distinct neurological features.
#3: The power of images in memory. Images fortify our memories, providing associational hooks that make memories easier to store and recall.
#4: The memory palace. An effective technique for remembering is to create a space in your mind that you know well and can easily visualise, and then populate that place/route with elaborate images.
#5: Memory techniques and the “OK plateau”. To take memorisation to the next level requires an expert approach, staying out of the “autonomous stage” of skill acquisition. Elite mnemonists use techniques such as “chunking” and person-action-object (PAO).
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
Premise of the Book
Joshua Foer forgot things like the rest of us until by chance he came across the world of mental athletes. Moonwalking with Einstein documents Foer’s journey from basic memory to elite memory, culminating with victory at the US Memory Championship within a year.
The book takes an extensive tour through the science and history of memory, explaining how anyone can practice the memory techniques of mental athletes – and perhaps more importantly, why the art of memory matters.
Key Idea #1: The rise and fall of internal memory
Beginning in documented history with Simonides, historically the art of memory was considered a vital instrument for innovation. But as Foer notes, over millennia we have gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast structure of external memory aids – a process dramatically sped up by the internet and digitalisation.
Our schooling, too, has given memorisation a bad name. The idea of memory in education conjures images of binge memorisation for exams followed by rapid forgetfulness. But some of the world’s best memories suggest that’s because we’ve been learning – and remembering – in the wrong way.
Concepts like Mind Mapping – a simple diagrammatical technique for committing a large range of ideas to memory – have sought to revive our use of internal memory. But the truth is that further digitalisation will inevitably leave us in an increased architecture of external memory.
So why does that matter? Foer points to the anecdotal link between memory and creativity, but more importantly, how memory forms our interactions with the world.
As Foer puts it, “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember.”
Key Idea #2: The science of memory systems
Scientists generally divide memory systems into two types:
- Declarative memories: things you know you remember, e.g. what happened yesterday.
- Non-declarative memories: things you know unconsciously, e.g. how to ride a bike.
Studies of those who have lost their hippocampi tell us that non-declarative memories don’t need the same short-term memory buffer as declarative memories. What’s more, they don’t depend on the hippocampus to be consolidated and stored. Instead, these memories rely on other parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum for motor skill learning, neocortex for perceptual learning, and basal ganglia for habit learning.
Declarative memories are distinguished into two further categories:
- Semantic memories: facts and concepts
- Episodic memories: experiences of our own lives
These two types of memory use different brain regions and rely on different neural pathways.
Interestingly, more recent memories tend to blur first in amnesiacs, while distant memories remain clear. This is a phenomenon known as Ribot’s law, and it suggests memories aren’t static. As we integrate old memories into the network of other memories, they become more stable and deeply embedded. In other words, the context can help us retain old memories, even as we become neurologically impaired.
Savants also offer some interesting neurological lessons. Many savants seem to have damage to the brain’s left hemisphere. At the same time, the exaggerated memorisation abilities of savants are almost always in activities related to the right hemisphere, suggesting that an impairment in one area of the brain can be compensated in some way by another part.
One emerging technology called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” has shown early promise in being able to temporarily “switch off” parts of the brain to provoke savant-like abilities.
Key Idea #3: The power of images in memory
Memories typically erode over the so-called “curve of forgetting”. But studies show that images tend to be much more resistant over time. For example, tests have exposed participants to thousands of images and then asked them to choose from two images (one of the thousands they had seen and one new image). Participants consistently recall a significant proportion, and this effect appears to be robust even after longer time periods have elapsed.
The idea of a permanent photographic memory, however, is just a myth. In reality, memories mutate, deplete, and eventually disappear. But our particular talent for images offers hints at the most effective techniques for remembering things.
It seems that the key to memory is to organise memories into images along a familiar journey. Neurological research lends support to this idea. Studies have shown that when memory champions engage in memorisation activities, they display higher activity in the brain regions associated with special memory and navigation.
These individuals don’t have fundamentally different brain structures or IQs. It appears they simply use their brains differently.
They do this by using associational hooks on a journey. To remember names, for example, we can use stories and imagery to provide a network of context to cling to.
Foer illustrates this idea by referring to the baker/baker paradox. Its premise is simple: One person is told a man’s last name is Baker and another is told the man is a baker. The person told he is a baker is much more likely to remember the next day.
Why? Because being a baker is embedded in a network of ideas. In contrast, the name Baker is tenuously linked to a face. In short, it’s the associational images that give memories that extra stickiness.
Key Idea #4: The memory palace
New experiences serve to anchor our memories. To paraphrase Foer, creating new experiences stretches our psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives. Or as he puts it: “Memory collapses time; novelty unfolds it.”
As William James observed in Principles of Psychology in 1890, life seems to go faster as we get older because more and more experiences become less novel and more automatic.
The memory palace builds on this principle of novelty for memory by applying the concept of elaborate encoding.
Elaborate encoding is the idea of taking the kinds of memories we’re not good at processing and turning them into the kinds of memories we were evolutionarily built for. In other words, it is a technique that tries to bring colour and life to memories through visual images.
The idea of a memory palace is to create a space in your mind that you know well and can easily visualise, and then populate that place with these types of elaborate images.
The memory palace takes advantage of humans’ exceptional special memories. And by also making images multi-sensory (i.e. imagining smells and sounds as well as sights) the memories become even stickier. Foer suggests using lavish images in strange actions, standout features, and animated images to make the route through the memory palace even more novel and lasting in our memories.
Key Idea #5: Memory techniques and the “OK plateau”
A wide range of research supports a theory known as “Skilled Memory Theory”. Researchers point to experts in their fields that demonstrate exceptional memories for their line of expertise. Their performance can seem instructive and automatic, but actually it’s based on years of contextual memories and experiential learning.
In the 1960s, Paul Fitts and Michael Posner described three stages of skill acquisition: the “cognitive stage”, “associative stage”, and “autonomous stage”.
In the autonomous stage, we reach what Foer calls the “OK plateau”. Crucially, this is where seminal research by Anders Ericcson suggests experts separate themselves from the rest. By engaging in “deliberate practice” focused on addressing weaknesses, experts consciously keep themselves out of the autonomous stage, forcing continuous improvement.
In other words, by engaging in deliberate practice, experts keep themselves in the “cognitive stage”. This type of practice therefore feels hard with good reason.
Foer suggests deliberate practice of a few key memorisation techniques can dramatically increase working memory and our ability to store longer-term memories.
- Chunking: This is one way to decrease the number of things to remember by increasing the size of each item. In essence, expertise draws on a kind of chunking by using context from long-term memory to interpret the present.
- Major system: This a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds.
- Person-action-object (PAO): This is a key technique for longer number sequences. Every two-digit number from 00 to 99 represents a person performing an action on an object, e.g. David Beckham kicking a football. Any six-digit number can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first two digits, the action from the third and fourth digit, and the object from the last two digits. (This same technique is what most memory competitors use from remembering decks of cards.)
View from the Blog
Foer delivers a superbly crafted read on the rich science and history of memory, which I gobbled up in a few sittings. My key takeaway from the book was this: Novel experiences and images are the architecture upon which memories stick.
That’s why we remember what we were doing on September 11th 2001, but we probably don’t remember what we were doing this time last year (unless it was marked by some novelty). It’s why those with phenomenal memories navigate their brains through buildings and roads scattered with unforgettable images. And it’s why if we don’t inject novelty into our lives as we get older, we remember less and less of our most recent years.
While we can record our lives in a world of external memory, that internal capacity to remember is surely something worth working for.
Now I just hope this book summary helps me commit some of it to memory.