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BOOK REVIEW

Studying — and competing in — the memory game

By Alex Spanko
March 14, 2011

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Just a few pages into “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,’’ Joshua Foer forcefully insists that his memory is just as faulty as everyone else’s — he can never remember where he put his car keys, for instance, or his anniversary.

Inspired by the characters he met while covering the 2005 US Memory Championship for Slate magazine, Foer decides to compete for the 2006 crown, which he eventually wins, in spite of his all-too-fallible brain.

Foer, a science journalist, used his training as an excuse to delve into years of fascinating memory research, and pontificate on the diminishing role of the human mind in an increasingly technological society: If Facebook can remember all your friends’ birthdays, and your cellphone can remember all their phone numbers, what good is a freakishly strong memory?

Despite his best attempts, Foer never manages to answer that question. His fellow competitors, whom he colorfully likens to the white-and-nerdy crowd at any given “Weird Al’’ Yankovic concert, come across as the same kind of harmless obsessives who vie for chess and crossword-puzzle championships.

Foer concludes that none of the expert memorizers he met over the course of his research had innate talent that allowed them to instantly remember thousands of random numbers, or the names and faces of hundreds of strangers. Instead, like Foer, they merely studied a few time-honored techniques that date back to the orators of ancient Greece and Rome.

Even though he still had trouble remembering various things after his championship win, Foer became quite adept at creating “memory palaces’’— mental pictures of familiar houses that contain striking visual representations of the mundane items he’s forced to memorize. To recall an entire deck of cards, Foer simply populated a palace with images that he’d already associated with each card.

Ed Cooke, the manically smart British “grand master of memory’’ who eventually became Foer’s personal coach, summed it up during their first meeting: “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.’’ With these old memory techniques, Cooke tells Foer with only a shred of irony, he and a partner hoped to “rehabilitate Western education.’’

If that sounded similar to the kind of braggadocio typically served up by self-help hucksters, that’s because the memory competition circuit is full of it. Foer managed to scrounge up a few examples of the potential good that could be realized by regimens for supercharged memories, including a group of poor high school students from the Bronx who used similar tricks to study for their AP history exams. But he admits that the modern memory movement owes a great debt to another Brit named Tony Buzan, who made his millions selling books with titles like “Make the Most of Your Mind’’ and “Use Your Perfect Memory.’’

The reality of the claims of the memory-improvement community, at least in Foer’s telling, lies somewhere in between educational miracle and dime-store snake oil. If anything, Foer’s rise to supremacy proves the get-smart-quick mentality false. As he notes, it took him a year of creating and memorizing images before he could commit a deck of cards to memory in record time — and, as a writer, it was part of his job. Perhaps, then, the book’s best role model for why developing memory can be useful is Cooke, a blustery “bon vivant’’ whom Foer compares to Oscar Wilde. While Cooke still harbors fantasies of educational revolution, he seems content in using his powers for more recreational pursuits: impressing journalists and cute women at bars.

Alex Spanko can be reached at alexspanko@gmail.com.

MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything By Joshua Foer

Penguin, 307 pp., $26.95