Moonwalking with Einstein

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 0 comments

moonwalking-with-einsteinWhile attending the U.S. Memory Championships for an article he was researching, Joshua Foer met people capable of reciting hundreds of random digits and words by heart after having looked at them moments ago. These competitors or ‘mental athletes’ would encourage Joshua to train for the very competition he was writing about using the same memory techniques that they used. “Moonwalking with Einstein” charts the author’s journey from the beginning of his memory training to the Championships a year later. His personal experience provides a structure and a narrative for the bulk of the book which explores the importance of memory, the science behind it, the history before it and what we can learn from a long-lost tradition of memory training.

This book highlights the importance of memory and memorization as a lost art.  Using your mind effectively as a repository of information means you have what you need at your disposal to muse over things while they continue to be clear in your mind.

Simonides and the Memory Palace

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a nobleman’s banquet when a messenger informed him that two men were waiting outside to speak with him. The moment he left the room, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed killing everyone inside. Amidst the piles of rubble, it was impossible to identify the bodies and be sure as to who exactly had been inside. Simonides closed his eyes and imagined the scene in the hall before he had left, seeing all the figures as they had been before, picturing what each guest had been doing and where they had been sitting. And so, he took relatives one by one to where their loved ones had been.

The story of Simonides is said to have sparked the invention of the “memory palace”, a 2,500 year-old mnemonic technique of placing information, whether people or objects, in different places on a journey through a visual space created in the mind. This is also known as the method of loci by the Romans and it involves visualising items and organising them around a space, for example in different rooms in a building, or placing them along a road. Mnemonics refer to many ways of remembering things more easily, and the memory palace or method of loci technique is a way of creating associations visually and spatially.

At the heart of the author’s memory training is this very technique of creating spatial parameters in the mind and visualising information to organise and store within it.

How to create a Memory Palace

Joshua met a young English ‘mental athlete’ by the name of Ed Cooke who offered to become his coach during his year of memory training. Ed starts his training with the “memory palace”, by suggesting that he uses somewhere familiar that can be easily visualised.  Joshua imagines the house he grew up in, a place he knows inside and out, which is deeply rooted in his memory. Ed asks him to place a list of items in different places as he journeys through his house. The purpose of the exercise is to make things as memorable as possible; the spatial information provides distinct locations that can be used to trace the journey back and ‘pick up’ those items again.

The items themselves should be made more memorable by exaggerating the details.  Creating a multi-sensorial picture in the mind of the item’s size, colour, texture and smell will produce multiple associations connected to the item so it can be remembered more easily. Ed asks Joshua to remember the first item of a list, pickled garlic. He asks him to imagine the smell, the taste and to exaggerate its proportions as he places it in the driveway of the house he grew up in.  Then in the same way, other items are placed around his house, each as vivid an image as the next. Ed explains the most basic principle of mnemonics to use for the memory palace, which is ‘elaborative encoding’. This is done by transforming information into visual imagery and encompassing as many of the other senses as possible.

The effectiveness of the memory palace technique is that the combination of image and location is so much more memorable than images alone or any information by itself. To build on that association, images can be made more interesting by exaggerating their features and animating them.

Examples of Competitive Memory Techniques

Words are relatively easy to visualise and they can be placed directly into a memory palace but with numbers, they have to be converted into images first, grouped together (chunking) and then placed inside.

The Major System converts numbers into phonetic sounds.







T or D











Sh or Ch

K or G

F or V

P or B


These sounds can be turned into words and then into images for a memory palace.  So the number 32 (MN) could be turned into the word ‘Man’ and the number 3,219 (MN, T or D, P or B) could be turned into a man playing a tuba (MNTB).

To remember longer strings of numbers, the “person-action-object” system (PAO) is used.

For every combination of digits between 00 and 99, an image of a person performing an action on an object is assigned to it. For example, 34 could be Frank Sinatra (person) crooning (action) into a microphone (object); 13 could be David Beckham kicking a football; and 79 could be Superman flying with a cape.  In a number such as 341,379, a single image could be created by combining the first of each type together for example ‘Frank Sinatra kicking a cape’.

Rote Memorization vs. Mnemonics

Learning something by rote is a simpler and easier process, but it is incredibly monotonous as it requires a great deal of repetition. The PAO system on the other hand is highly effective, but has to be learned in advance in order to apply it – which takes a lot of time and effort in itself.  Although it takes imagination and mental agility to produce images and place them in a memory palace, the system is able to generate a unique image for numbers between 0 and 999,999, and because of the bizarre nature of the images produced, they are more memorable.  In memory competitions, the whole process of storing words or numbers into memory palaces has to be done as quickly as possible and this takes a great deal of practice as well as a high degree of concentrated effort.  The psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, an expert on experts, found consistently that gaining an expertise requires a large amount of ‘deliberate practice’, whether experts were naturally talented or not.

Memory and Presentations

The book discusses the use of mnemonic processes as examples of memory techniques for people to create stores of information in their minds, to access when they choose to. These are active processes that require practice in order for them to work effectively. Of course, when presenting, we want our audience to remember our messages – but unfortunately for us, they tend not to be memory experts.

m62 uses ‘passive’ mnemonic processes to achieve as high a recall as possible without explicitly asking the audience to try to remember, or training them in memory techniques. Some mnemonic techniques can be used in presentations, to increase the likelihood that the audience will passively remember what they have seen and heard. A few of our techniques are hinted at in this book about memory champions.

The book details one memory technique in particular, the “memory palace” which enforces the notion that visualising information makes it more memorable.  Visualisation at m62 incorporates these mnemonic processes to make information more accessible and easier to remember, without overtly stating that these are in fact techniques that improve recall.

Something visual is more easily remembered than numbers or text, especially if it is out of the ordinary.  When it comes to the right kind of imagery in a presentation, there has to be a balance between quirky and appropriate.  Presentations should be remembered for the right reason.

People are very good at remembering spatial information and so setting an image within a defined visual space, preferably one that is familiar, is more memorable because they are both visual and because a strong association is created between image and location. The layout of images on a slide is important to improving recall as the positions of images are better captured in the mind; not only what they are, but also the order that they are in. That’s why in our value proposition slides benefits remain in the same place, and don’t rotate to other positions.

To take this idea further, one can use the idea of a memory palace and create a virtual, perhaps 3D space as part of the visual framework of a presentation. This could be navigated as part of a journey that the audience takes, so that information could be more easily remembered when it is associated spatially as well as visually.

Creating a narrative means the audience can follow the presentation more easily by linking everything together (association) like a story, rather than trying to remember disparate pieces of information presented in an unconnected way.

Chunking is a widely used mnemonic technique which decreases the quantity of information into more manageable pieces.  This technique is used to remember long strings of numbers.

Repetition (rehearsal) of key points is also used and helps to embed new information into our memories.  The more we revisit a memory, the more it will become fixed into our network of memories, and the more stable it becomes.

Throughout the book, Joshua describes his training intermittently and the developments he makes while benefiting from the advice of many experts and resources on memory.  The majority of the book looks into the history of memory techniques and the literature written on it, the cultural evolution and decline of these methods, the nature of memory from research into neuroscience and interviews with special cases of exceptional recall and severe amnesia.  It is very well-researched and offers insights into many areas of memory.  Although it seemed as if the book would be more like a guide, it was actually an interesting story into the author’s own experience of how anyone can improve their memory.

Joshua won the Memory Championships.

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