Friday, 9 March 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer *****

There is a very particular style of popular science writing, often from America, that combines information on science with a personal voyage of discovery. On the whole they tend to be written either by quite young writers or by someone very well funded by a magazine or a TV company (book publishers rarely pay well enough) because they involve giving up maybe a year of your life to go on the road and follow up a high concept. The cream of these books are superbly enjoyable – and I think Joshua Foer’s is the best I’ve ever read, making it a classic of the genre.
In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the world of competitive memory skills – a small, almost unknown cadre of (dare we say) rather weird individuals who spend the year practising to be able compete at tasks like memorizing the order of a pack of cards (allegedly very useful in casinos, though Foer doesn’t really explore this particular application), an unseen poem, a list of names and faces, and random binary digits.
Along the way – and here comes the science bit, as they say in all the best cosmetic adverts – he gives us a fair amount of information on the nature of memory and how the human brain processes it, though obviously this is not covered in as much detail as you would get in a ‘pure’ popular science book – it probably amounts to less than a quarter of the content. Even so, Foer gives us a good picture of current thinking on what is still an area of science requiring a lot more understanding.
The brain science is pretty well presented – though I’ve read a lot about the brain, I still learned a few things – but the captivating part of the book is Foer’s personal journey. Not only does he get to know the memory champions, and the larger-than-life ‘use your brain better’ guru Tony Buzan – he actually enters the US Memory Championships. It seems unlikely that an ‘amateur’ would do well, but apparently the US Championships are not in the same league as the Europeans, and Foer is guided by a UK master – so he has a fighting chance of getting placed (apart from an epilogue, the book peaks with his taking part – I won’t give the game away by saying how he does).
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is when he is dealing with ‘savants’, people who have unusual and remarkable talents, often accompanied by mental disabilities. He talks to the man who was the inspiration of the movie Rain Man, but the best part of all is his interaction with the savant Daniel Tammet who Foer gives strong evidence for being not quite what he seems. It’s not that Tammet doesn’t have excellent memory and mental maths skills – but Foer clearly believes this originated from training rather than from any special mental capacity. And his argument is very persuasive.
Overall, then, a truly enjoyable book with a real surge of excitement as ‘our boy’ takes on the US Championships. You really do learn quite a lot about how memory works, and also plenty of excellent memory techniques. In the epilogue, Foer points out something I too have observed from dabbling in memory techniques. They really do work. It’s perfectly possible for pretty well anyone to remember names and lists and phone numbers. But the fact is it is actually harder work than just jotting down a note. These techniques work conceptually, but they rarely seem worth the effort in practice. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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