Moonwalking with Einstein

"'It's all about technique and understanding how the memory works,' he told the reporter, 'Anyone could do it, really.'"

- Moonwalking with Einstein, page 7

Most people know very little about their own memories. One of those people used to be Joshua Foer, a journalist, who while at the U.S. Memory Championships, was challenged by the contestants, who claim that if he put enough time towards training, he could be a serious contender next year. So he did. Moonwalking with Einstein tells the story of how Foer started from scratch and developed his memory to the point where he not only competed the following year but set a new American record in speed cards. In the process, he also learns a lot about the history of memory.

Memory used to be important. Since there was little written record of events, morals and ideas (and even less access to what record there was) it was very important to be able to recall that which you learned. Even the earliest writing was used primarily to help its author recall an earlier thought. With the dawn of the printing press and the shift to a literate culture, this need no longer existed. One just needed to remember where to find the information/idea/quotation. Now, with the internet and powerful search engines at our disposal as well, we just need to remember what it’s called.

And yet, there’s a certain extent to which we want to improve our internal mental capacities as well, much as the invention of cars haven’t made people stop running marathons or even stop walking as an end in itself.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The OK Plateau

"Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes."
- Moonwalking with Einstein, page 171

This applies not only to memory but to any skill with a measurable sense of “better”. At a certain stage in his training, Foer realizes that his scores have flatlined—he’s not getting better. He contacts K. Anders Ericsson, the psychology professor who is studying his progress, and is told that he has hit the OK Plateau.

There are three stages to a learning a skill. In the first stage, the “cognitive stage”, the skill is performed consciously and manually. This is when the brain is developing new strategies to do it more effectively. At this stage, there is improvement in fits and starts because the brain is monitoring performance and removing errors. The “associative stage” is then when the brain stops strategizing and just becomes more efficient. Finally, you reach the “autonomous stage” where the behaviours become automatic and the improvement stops. This is called the OK Plateau, and it used to be considered the upper limit of a person’s ability. Now we know that it’s possible to improve far above it.

Autonomous performance is very important—having a conversation while driving a car would be impossible if speech and driving were not performed automatically, for example. However, when trying to improve a skill, it’s vital to continually make the process more challenging so that your brain can’t slack off. This is called Deliberate Practice, and is covered more detail in Talent Is Overrated.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Memory Palace

"For your first memory palace, I’d like you to use the house you grew up in. [...] When it comes time to recall the list, all you will need to do is retrace the steps we’re about to take in your imagination."
- Moonwalking with Einstein, page 98

Do you ever find yourself at a loss because you have something to remember (a list, a phrase, a name, etc.) and no writing utensils or gadgets with which to record it? Before the invention of writing or electronics, people used to keep palaces devoted to memory. Not physical palaces, but mental ones. It turns out that the human mind, while able to forget words almost instantly, is profoundly good at remembering images. However, while imagining a giant carrot, some greasy bacon, and a bottle of blood-red ketchup will make it easier to recall your grocery list, it is very easy to omit an item, especially as the list gets longer. This approach also doesn’t work if the items need to be in a certain order.

The Memory Palace, also known as the Method of Loci, fixes these issues and more. Here’s how it works:

1. Think of a place you know well… a childhood home, perhaps, or where you live now.

2. Imagine walking up to that place, and putting the first object to remember right on the front porch.

3. Then, step inside, and turn to your left. What do you see? Put the second object on, in, or near that.

4. Repeat with your entire list, traversing as much of the house as necessary. Depending on what you’re trying to remember you might need multiple palaces.

One important tip: visually stimulating things are much easier to remember, as I alluded to earlier by putting adjectives in front of the groceries I mentioned. Go even further. Imagine that your entire armchair is covered in bacon. Imagine a grotesque fake-murder scene with empty ketchup bottles everywhere. Violent or sexual imagery can work very well for this. Absurd things too, as long as they’re relevant. Boring objects? Make them animate and talkative.

This technique, as described above, should be enough to allow you to remember thoughts that pop into your head during a conversation or lecture, or as you’re about to fall asleep. I would advise taking a bit of time to mentally prepare the place: revisit it, clean it up, and open the windows so you have a nice view of everything. Make sure you know the path you’re taking through the building. Ultimately, you can learn more about this, and use it to memorize everything from poems and speeches to digits of pi.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Major System

"The advantage of the Major System is that it’s straightforward, and you can begin using it right out of the box."
- Moonwalking with Einstein, page 98

The Memory Palace is great, sure, but how would you actually memorize the digits of pi? It’s hard to imagine a really vivid 7389 laying in your bed. The major system allows you to convert numbers into sounds and thus words, thereby making them memorable. Each number keys to a certain kind of consonant, and vowels and some other sounds are unassigned. 1 is T or D. 2 is N. In the case of 7389, 7 is K/G/Q, 3 is M, 8 is F/V and 9 is P/B. Therefore 7389 could be represented as GuM-FiB, and you could imagine a child insisting to you that he isn’t chewing gum while clearly chewing it.

The Major System is based not around letters but sounds, so “enough” and “knife” would both code for 28. “Knife” would probably be easier to remember visually though. You may also notice that no matter what letter you choose, each number corresponds to essentially the same position for your mouth. If you want to go deeper, the Major System wikipedia article is a great place to start. The code is outlined below:

0   Z/S
1   T/D
2   N
3   M
4   R
5   L
6   ng/j/zh/
7   K/Gu/Q
8   F/V
9   P/B

Memory, and indeed most intellectual skill, is not fixed. Anyone, by using the right techniques and practising, can expand their mnemonic capacity beyond what many people would even think possible—an excellent party trick, or simple a useful tool to remember phone and credit card numbers. Practise even more, and you might even be able to compete against others at national or world championships.


Moonwalking with Einstein is not so much a self-help book as an exploration of memory, so I would recommend it to anyone looking to find out more about how the memory works. For specific training advice, I would look elsewhere.

Do you know of any tips for remembering things? Leave them in the comments below. I can also answer more specifics about these techniques if you have questions.

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Malcolm Ocean

ABOUT Malcolm Ocean

Malcolm Ocean is a jack-of-all-trades engineering student, singer-songwriter, and software developer/designer. He also has a huge passion for dance, and enjoys collaborating with people who make things...
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