“Even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly”
Around the Biohacking sphere of the internet, the promise of attaining a “limitless” mind and memory is really oversold and under-delivered on. No, a $39 multivitamin combining a few garden-variety Nootropic compounds will not enable you to learn a language in a week, sorry! In my +11-years of obsessive research and self-experimentation, I’ve identified a few tools (the best ones are free or cheap) that actually do sharpen both my long-term and working memory. Moonwalking with Einstein is about one of them, mnemonic memory training, the others I’ll mention briefly in this review.
About the book…
This… is about the year I spent trying to train my memory, and also trying to understand it — its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential. It’s about how I learned firsthand that our memories are indeed improvable, within limits, and that the skills of Ed and Lukas can indeed be tapped by all of us. It’s also about the scientific study of expertise, and how researchers who study memory champions have discovered general principles of skill acquisition — secrets to improving at just about anything — from how mental athletes train their brains. (p.28)
The author, Joshua Foer, was the US memory champion in 2006, after just a year spent practicing mnemonic memory training. Which I find remarkable! In how many fields can you attain national acclaim after just a year of practice? I don’t get the impression that Foer had a lot of innate talent, he admits to having a pretty mediocre memory prior to encountering the weird and wacky world of memory competition. His achievement speaks to how easy it is to get from Padawan to Jedi Master as a mnemonist — which is a person who practices these memory systems.
Why train your memory when it’s so easy and convenient to externalize memory?
I started externalizing memory at a very young age with this leather-bound notebook that I would bring with me everywhere. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a Cambrian explosion of externalized memory tools; Evernote, smartphone voice memos, Facebook’s friends’ birthdays reminders, voice-command-taking virtual assistants, project management software, photos taken of hotel door numbers, dashcams in our cars, automatic recording of Zoom calls, and email reminder apps — like Boomerang.
Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories. (p.29)
So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from [a man] whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. (p.274)
To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. Surely some of the forgetting that seems to plague us is healthy and necessary. If I didn’t forget so many of the dumb things I’ve done, I’d probably be unbearably neurotic. But how many worthwhile ideas have gone unthought and connections unmade because of my memory’s shortcomings? (p.18)
the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten. (p.17)
What a colossal waste of time! Foer also writes
Pick any human endeavor in which people excel, and I’ll give you even odds that some psychologist somewhere has written a paper about the exceptional memories possessed by experts in that field. (p.53)
I’d also contend that the problem with externalizing so much of our memory is that our innate memory becomes so atrophied and weak that we begin to forget to use our externalized memory tech. For example, I have a few people in my life who really should remember to call or send me a message on my birthday, yet they often forget — which stings just a little every year. These are people chronically online millennials; there are a multitude of well-designed, intuitive, and free apps that they could install on the fancy smartphones they spend many hours every day using to remind them of my birthday — yet still, they often miss it.
A recent (and very practical example) of how I used mnemonic memory systems
Seeing the recent news about the collapse of major cryptocurrency exchanges that scammed their customers, I decided to self-custody all my crypto in a secure offline wallet. The problem with self-custoding crypto is that if your keys ever get leaked your crypto will be gone in no time! We like to think that our computers and smartphones are pretty secure — safe places to store usernames, passwords, and wallet keys — but every year hackers write cleverer and cleverer viruses that creep onto our devices to log our keystrokes and peer into our most private files looking for a way to snatch our cryptocurrency. So I decided against storing my private keys anywhere digital; I just wrote them down along with my 12-word keyphrase. But the issue with this is, of course, what if I lose that piece of paper or spill a cup of Bulletproof-style coffee on it blotting out my keyphrase? My crypto would be irretrievably gone. I don’t have the time or inclination to store my seed phrase in multiple bank safeboxes as the Winklevoss twins did so the safest place for my precious keyphrase is between my two ears. But if I forget it then my crypto could be gone forever, which is why I had better make damn sure that I don’t forget those 12 words. So I turned to mnemonics, I spent a few minutes writing (with pen and paper) a very silly little story associating all 12 words together in the correct sequence. Then over dinner, I shared the story with my wife, she laughed at the absurd associations I came up with and then was able to tell the story back to me. Thus committing our precious keyphrase to memory. Future Crypto fortune secured!
You already have a photographic memory
“What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly,” [Ed Cooke — Grand Master of Memory] said
Universal photographic memory (of imagery at least) is strongly suggested by a series of studies.
“…Your memory for images is that good.” He was referring to a frequently cited set of experiments carried out in the 1970s using the exact same picture recognition test that we’d just taken, only instead of thirty images, the researchers asked their subjects to remember ten thousand. (It took a full week to perform the test.) That’s a lot of pictures for a mind to keep track of, especially since the subjects were only able to look at each image once. Even so, the scientists found that people were able to remember more than 80 percent of what they’d seen. In a more recent study, the same test was performed with 2,500 images… Even when the images differed only in a tiny detail, people still remembered 90 percent of them correctly. (p.36)
Types of memory
This phenomenon of unconscious remembering, known as priming, is evidence of an entire shadowy underworld of memories lurking beneath the surface of our conscious reckoning. Though there is disagreement about just how many memory systems there are, scientists generally divide memories broadly into two types: declarative and nondeclarative (sometimes referred to as explicit and implicit). Declarative memories are things you know you remember, like the color of your car, or what happened yesterday afternoon… Nondeclarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror… Those unconscious memories don’t seem to pass through the same short-term memory buffer as declarative memories, nor do they depend on the hippocampal region to be consolidated and stored. They rely primarily on different parts of the brain. (p.89)
Imagery is the key
“The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it,” (p.98)
From Ad Herennium, the original self-help book for mnemonists, written by Cicero himself over two thousand years ago.
“When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.” (p.107)
So the idea is to create visual associations that are as weird and inappropriate as possible; use cartoonishly absurd cinematic scenes, disproportion, ridiculously massive quantities, sexiness, violence, and even your own relatives. To memorize your boss’s birthday you might just have to visualize your own grannie banging Barney the purple dinosaur (sorry — NOT SORRY — to put that image in your head) but it might be just what gets you on your boss’s good side, engendering the goodwill you need in the boardroom to advance your career.
Peruse memory palaces
Memory palaces don’t necessarily have to be palatial — or even buildings. They can be routes through a town — as they were for S — or station stops along a railway, or signs of the zodiac, or even mythical creatures. They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar. (p.104)
A shortcoming of this 317-page book
Moonwalking is more story and character-driven, you’ll learn some fascinating things about human memory in it, BUT it doesn’t guide you through learning the mnemonic memory techniques that the author mastered in a year. For that, you’ll need another book, The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play.
The Memory Book [Book Review]
I first read this book about 10 years ago, when I found it on my parent's bookshelves in high school. I was fascinated…
This one gets real practical and pragmatic; in it you’re going to learn, for example, the pegging system for remembering numbers which are abstract and hard to visualize. I’ll give you a really fun example; let’s say I asked you to remember the number 91852719521639092112 — that would be next to impossible, right? But what if I asked to remember A Beautiful Naked Blond Jumps Up and Down? That’s a lot easier to remember, isn’t it? This unforgettable phrase (I still remember it from when I first read this book in high school — almost twenty years ago!) will evoke that exact number to a mnemonist with a little experience with the pegging system.
How to memorize a speech
The question of how best to memorize a piece of text, or a speech, has vexed mnemonists for millennia. The earliest memory treatises described two types of recollection: memoria rerum and memoria verborum, memory for things and memory for words. When approaching a text or a speech, one could try to remember the gist, or one could try to remember verbatim. The Roman rhetoric teacher Quintilian looked down on memoria verborum on the grounds that creating such a vast number of images was not only inefficient, since it would require a gargantuan memory palace, but also unstable. If your memory for a speech hinged on knowing every word, then not only did you have a lot more to remember, but if you forgot a single word, you could end up trapped in a room of your memory palace staring at a blank wall, lost and unable to move on. Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.) (p.139)
Upgrading your memory
our ability to process information and make decisions in the world is limited by a fundamental constraint: We can only think about roughly seven things at a time. (p.65)
Can this be hacked? You bet! Firstly with what’s called chunking — which is described in the book
Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item. Chunking is the reason that phone numbers are broken into two parts plus an area code and that credit card numbers are split into groups of four. And chunking is extremely relevant to the question of why experts so often have such exceptional memories. (p.69)
And your short-term working memory can be upgraded in about 20 days with a Dual N-Back brain training practice…
Anybody who has devoted themselves to mastering Dual N-Back brain training will know that thinking of seven things at a time isn’t the real limit of the human mind because, in the brain game, you have to keep track of dual sets of audio and visual information (chunks). Your long-term memory of facts, happenings, and skills is a different system than your short-term or working memory that you are now using to concentrate on reading this article, but they are entangled. Those precious long-term memories must be reconstituted by your short-term memory for you to access them — this is why you get “Tik Tok brain” and can’t seem to remember anymore the name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend.
SuperMemo is another tool that I strongly suggest you use for 5–10 minutes a day alongside your brain training practice. It’s a free flashcard app with a very clever algorithm that hacks the forgetting process — it’s helped me learn two languages now!
SuperMemo Biohacker Review: Hacking Forgetting
A software tool +25 years in research and development to enable limitless knowledge acquisition and retention…
Rise above the OK plateau
the autonomous stage seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau,”
…the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving. (p.176–177)
A historical hack…
That we desperately need in modernity.
Once upon a time, every literate person was versed in the techniques Ed was about to teach me. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it. (p.102)
I find it criminally negligent that modern schoolchildren aren’t taught to use Mnemonics — which would make learning fun and easy for them!
Hacking time dilation
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. (p.85)
This makes sense to me! Time seemed to pass slower in my digital nomad days. If you want to go a lot deeper on the topic of lifehacking adventure for epic memories, read The 2 AM Principle or check out my book review of it, The Adventure Formula.
Will memory training help you pick up chicks?
The author writes about one of his fellow quirky memory competitors
He was in no conventional sense handsome, and yet later that night, I watched him approach a woman in the street, ask for a cigarette, and a few minutes later walk away reciting her phone number. His “normal bar trick,” he told me, involves shimmying up to a young lady and inviting her to create an “arbitrarily long number,” and then promising to buy her a bottle of champagne should he successfully remember it. (p.53)
I find it unlikely that this bar trick will lead to romance, love, seduction, or even a first date. A good memory indicates intelligence which is something that women find attractive — but rarely in isolation. If you’re going to try to impress women with mnemonic memory techniques I suggest you do so and then quickly move on to Content for “Chemistry” — 14 things girls LOVE to talk about.
Apparently, smoking is a vice that some of the memory competitors shared, this is no surprise to me because Nicotine is an awesome Nootropic smart drug. Elderly folks who smoke don’t tend to get Alzheimer’s or suffer from catastrophic cognitive decline because of Nicotine’s neuroprotective effect. But, of course, cigarettes are a pretty awful way to consume Nicotine, I prefer pharma-grade USP solution or gum.
Nicotine: The Addictive Creativity Drug
Supplementing Nicotine is the secret weapon of elite Biohackers like Dave Asprey and Aubrey Marcus for instant…
And I know that some of you are wondering if there is some wonder drug that will make accessing your long-term memory less like searching the library for a book and more like doing a Google search. And after personally trying over 200 Nootropics there is no magic pill but Piracetam will noticeably improve your memory after 2–3 weeks of dosing.
Piracetam: What +600 Human Studies Say about the Enigmatic Smart Drug...
I'm not a doctor, medical professional, or trained therapist. I'm a researcher and pragmatic biohacking practitioner…
Creativity is future memory
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.” If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be at coming up with new ideas. As Buzan likes to point out, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses. (p.210)
The book gets four stars from me
It infuses a lot of personality and compelling narrative into the art, practice, and science of memory — something many have not given a second thought to even though we rely on memory every waking moment of our lives. But it could have easily been a hundred pages longer with a few chapters guiding the reader through the techniques themselves.
I’ll mention a reading motivation lifehack; I log all the books I read with Good Reads which at the end of the year produces this very share-worthy “Your Year in Books” report. I find this motivates me to read more and finish books before the year ends. I finished Moonwalking with Einstein on Dec 31st.