⭑⭑⭑½ (3.5/5 see book reviews)

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave his threshold test for obscenity: I’ll know it when I see it. I might reply the same if I were pushed to explain the distinction between memorization and knowledge.

The book Moonwalking with Einstein explores humans’ relationship to memory, our ideas of knowledge, and how that’s shifted over time. But it begins with an exploration of competitive memorization and the techniques used by memory champions.

The memory palace

The techniques used in memory competitions are known as the method of loci (“loci” is Latin for “places”). The term that permeated the zeitgeist when this book was released was: “Memory Palace.”

The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the “method of loci” by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a “memory palace.”

– Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein

The method was invented by 4th century BCE poet Simonides of Ceos and is captured in the Rhetorica ad Herennium—which is referred to frequently in this book.

Baker/baker paradox

The method of loci works because it ties new information to old information. The old information can help lead us to the new information.

This is similar to the Baker/baker paradox:

The paradox goes like this: A researcher shows two people the same photograph of a face and tells one of them that the guy is a baker and the other that his last name is Baker. A couple days later, the researcher shows the same two guys the same photograph and asks for the accompanying word. The person who was told the man’s profession is much more likely to remember it than the person who was given his surname.

– Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein

A long life is a memorable life

There was a cute passage in the text about how to have a long life. The crux is really the definition of a long life. If you live 100s of years, but you have no memories, then your life wasn’t that long. Memories are how we measure our lives.

And because we know how to create memories that stick—we remember novelty—the formula for a long life is to do novel things.

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. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

– Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein

Although, and this typifies my critiques of this book, the false dichotomy of exercising and eating right vs. vacations to exotic locales is silly.

Memory, learning, and writing

I was beguiled by the chapter on “The End of Remembering.” I learned so much from this chapter, but I found the author’s arguments were distracting and sloppy.

I’ll try to lay out one argument that bothered me.

Classic Greek and Latin wrote in scripta continua—writing without punctuation—which meant that reading required some familiarity with the text to read smoothly.

What’s more, silent reading is a very recent phenomenon; the book cites the “Confessions” of St. Augustine, in which St. Augustine notes the silent reading of St. Ambrose:

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.

– St. Augustine, Confessions

Therefore, Foer argues, readers of scripta continua had to memorize the text to be fluent.

I find this claim specious.

A Socrates quote about writing at the beginning of the same chapter pushes back on the author’s claim: “What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is not true wisdom that you offer your desciples … And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men.”

If writing was contemporaneously understood to be tantamount to memorization, then what you discovered is not much of a “recipe for reminding,” right?

I both loved and hated this chapter.


About 60% of the way through the book, one of the characters that the book mocks ruthlessly, Tony Buzon, is revealed to be the creator of the fucking mind map.

Mind maps were so ubiquitous by the time I went through school that I assumed they had a much more storied history.

Anyway, Tony Buzon—an advocate of memorization and popularizer of the mind map.

The curve of forgetting

Only briefly touched on in the book: Hermann Ebbinghaus and the curve of forgetting.

Hermann Ebbinghaus memorized random three-letter “words” (e.g., “EOK”) and then measured how long it took him to forget them. This research laid the foundation for computer-aided learning systems like Anki. Anki is not mentioned in this book (probably because it’s not useful for memory competitions).


The author works with K. Anders Ericsson to train for the USA memory championships. Ericsson is (in)famous for the misquoted 10,000 hour rule via Malcolm Gladwell and is, at this point, required to be in every pop-psych book.

Spoiler: Josh Foer is 2006 memory champion, ZOMG!


  • Title: Moonwalking with Einstein
  • Author: Joshua Foer
  • Pages: 317
  • Format: EBook
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • ISBN: 1455509124
  • Genre: Pop psychology