At Tim Challies’ recommendation I read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, and I’m glad I did. The book is subtitled The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, but surely you know that no book has a magic formula to turn yourself into a Grand Master of Memory! Even if you employed all the strategies and techniques discussed in the book, you’d be in for a ton of disciplined work if you hoped to memorize a sequence of a thousand random digits in under an hour, the order of all the cards in ten shuffled decks in an hour, and the order of a single shuffled deck in less than two minutes–all required for attaining the rank of Grand Master of Memory (8). Nor do the techniques work all that well for memorizing poems or wide-swaths of Scripture.
Still, this book has great value. Here’s why:
Even though I haven’t adapted these techniques in my attempts to memorize Bible and poetry, I learned from and was motivated by this book. Reading about the “mental athletes” who compete in these memory competitions was extremely motivating. Josh Foer writes of his friend Ed Cooke,
Ed, I had already discovered, was always memorizing something. He had long ago learned the bulk of Paradise Lost by heart (at the rate of two hundred lines per hour, he told me), and had been slowly slogging his way through Shakespeare. “My philosophy of life is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed,” he said (109).
Thanks for the kick in the pants to get going!
With that, Moonwalking with Einstein is really well written. If a memory competition is like a roomful of people taking the SAT, as the author says, how exciting would you expect it be to read about how a journalist went to one of those, researched the brain and memory, trained for the competition, which he won the following year? Interesting maybe, but not exactly the stuff of “The Dark Knight Rises.” How many non-fiction books do you start and never finish? This was an easy book to finish. Foer spins a funny, insightful, page-turner packed with interesting anecdotes.
If your eyes are peeled for sermon illustrations or creative stimulation for other kinds of speaking and writing, this book brims with material. You’ll read about:
- a man who once changed all four tires of a car with no tools
- how your brain has some 100 billion neurons, each capable of five to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons
- how the brain is really good at spaces and images
- how “It’s thought that sleep plays a critical role in [the] process of consolidating our memories and drawing meaning out of them” (83)
- how only three in ten trainees qualify to become London cabbies
- the difficulty of discerning the difference between male and female hatchling chicks
- that it takes 10,000 hours of training to become an expert
- that what separates an expert is the ability to engage in deliberate practice that addresses weaknesses through constant and immediate feedback, focus on technique, and setting goals for improvement (how you practice is more important than the amount of time you practice)
- how chess masters see chess boards as “chunks” of information (see on “chunking” below)
- what Petrarch said of what he had memorized, “I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow” (110).
- what was said of Augustine: that he was “so steeped in the Psalms that they, as much as Latin itself, comprised the principle language in which he wrote” (110).
- how “Song is the ultimate structuring device for language” (128).
and much more . . .
I enjoyed this book, I’m grateful for the motivation, and I appreciated the factoids. But my two big takeaways–what I’m most grateful for–have to do with how memory shapes who we are and the intersection of memory and creativity.
Our memories shape who we are and how we interpret the world. This is a massive point for understanding how the Bible is meant to shape our understanding of God, salvation, the world, and ourselves. This, I think, is what Israel’s feasts were intended to accomplish: building a schema like the ones the chess masters use to interpret the chess board so they intuitively respond/react to it.
Foer writes of memory, “experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience” (7). One technique for remembering is called “chunking.” It involves the way that we group bits of information into “chunks” that reinterpret the tidbits we perceive in light of what we already know. Foer illustrates this with a string of numbers that would be difficult to memorize as stand-alone digits:
But if we “chunk” these numbers they’re easy to recognize and remember:
12/07/41 and 09/11/01.
On this basis, Foer notes, “what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.” And with this, he observes, “This . . . is what all experts do: They use their memories to see the world differently” (62). Along these lines, “We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.” Chess experts recognize entire chess boards at a glance because they have “a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize” (65). Here Foer says something profound about these chess masters, something that Christians should think about when it comes to the interpretation of the world: “The experts are interpreting the present board in term[s] of their massive knowledge of past ones. The lower ranked players are seeing the board as something new” (66).
This, I contend, is the goal of biblical theology. We want to learn the context of all the Bible’s statements, remember them in the broader story and know its patterns, then interpret our own experience against the schematic patterns we have learned from the Bible. Foer writes, “Whether we realize it or not, we are all like those chess masters . . . , interpreting the present in light of what we’ve learned in the past, and letting our previous experiences shape not only how we perceive our world, but also the moves we end up making in it” (67). Related to this, Foer comments on why most people remember little to nothing about their lives until the age of three or four: “As infants, we . . . lack schema for interpreting the world and relating the present to the past” (84). Foer later writes, “Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture” (208).
This quote is for Denny Burk, the rest of you can listen in: “Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches” (209). Velcro, bro.
On the profound connection between memory and creativity, consider Josh Foer’s quotation and summary of the thoughts of Tony Buzan:
“In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus,” says Buzan. “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.” 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 (203).
Foer concludes with reflections on what all his memory training taught him:
What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice (268).
He also notes how memory shapes who we are:
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. . . . Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character (269–70).
Foer is, to my knowledge, not a Christian, but this comment on gradually altering habits on the basis of what we know and remember sounds like sanctification. Those networks of memory can be re-shaped by our Spirit-empowered efforts. What do you remember? What are you putting into your memory? Fill it with Scripture and the high thoughts of the best writers.