• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

40 Books in 2018

Joshua Foer


320pp Penguin Books

December 1975. It must have been a Saturday because (a) my parents permitted to stay up late, and (b) we were watching Parkinson, a BBC chat show. Rather than a movie or sports star, a comedian or a musician, the week’s guest was an American called Harry Lorayne. He was described as a ‘memory man’.

His warm up: knowing all the Oscar winners over the previous three decades (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress). Simple for a movie buff.

Secondly, the host Parkinson took a card from a shuffled deck, shuffled again, then Lorayne ran through the remaining 51 just once, memorised the order, and named the missing card. Was that a card sharp’s ‘force’?

Finally, Lorayne told us that before the show he’d stood at the studio doors and introduced himself to the audience members coming in. He asked everyone to stand up, then went through row by row, naming all of them, one by one.

At thirteen, I’d just watched a miracle.

(Parkinson from the mid-70s isn’t available on YouTube, so here’s Johnny Carson from 1988: You’ll find Harry Lorayne and his audience at 39:25.)

It was part way through Moonwalking with Einstein : The Art and Science of Remembering Everything when the Saturday night entertainment came back so vividly.

Joshua Foer, a freelance journalist, found himself observing the 2015 US Memory Championships and became increasingly conscious how many passwords, names, appointments and birthdays he was supposed to know but couldn’t remember.

"Who was the friend whose name stared with L? Why can’t I remember family anniversaries but know the lyrics to a Britney Spears’ song?"

Moonwalking with Einstein (MwE) weaves the history of memory research with his year of training, preparing Foer to take part in the 2016 competition.


A whistle-stop tour of the development of memory technique:

In Ancient Greece, knowledge was recorded on scrolls which were up to 60 feet long, often written scriptio continua (without spaces, punctuation or distinguished letter case). Without page numbers, index or concordance, navigation through endless documents was only possible – ironically – with a very keen memory.

The Greek word most commonly used to signify ‘to read’ was ‘anagignosko’, which means to ‘know again’ or ‘recollect’.

Ars Memorativa (the art of memory) started with the Romans, specifically with Cicero’s De Oratore, and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. Refined and codified sets of rules in memory user manuals. Having a good memory and ‘furnishing the mind’ was integral to being a good Roman citizen.

In the Middle Ages, post/pre-literate populations depended on memory to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. If nothing else, the pious needed to remember everything from that week’s sermon.

Even after the appearance of Gutenberg, access to books as known today was very limited.

As a modern study, memory research was started in 1870 by German psychologist Herrmann Ebbinghaus. Thank him for the idea of 'the learning curve'.

Ebbinghaus also brought attention to the first of three extremes that Foer profiles in his history: ‘journalist S’, the man who remembered everything.

The newspaper’s editor noticed that ‘S’ never took notes at the early morning briefing, so sent him to Ebbinghaus to find out what was wrong. When asked, ‘S’ recounted every conversation, dates, locations and numbers. Not just of that day, but for every meeting he’d attended.

the word synaesthesia as a picture.

His condition was labelled synaesthesia, in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses; words, names, objects and abstracts were sensed as smell, colour or flavour. ‘S’ said that if he ever forgot something (everything was so vivid), it was not a failure of memory, but a defect of perception.

What a gift for a journalist! Everything verbatim; no notes required.

Unfortunately, remembering everything brought with it an inability to prioritise. Nothing was vital nor irrelevant. Everything was everything. Hence, journalist S didn’t succeed – at anything.

The second extreme in MwE is at the other end of the spectrum: Mr EP, the most advanced case of amnesia on record.

A victim of Herpes simplex encephalitis, parts of his brain have been eroded. While a very pleasant fellow, he cannot recall any old memories and cannot make any new ones. His amnesia is so extreme, he cannot remember that he has a problem with remembering; tell him that he has grandchildren, and there is a teary response at the good news. Then he immediately forgets.

Mr EP lives in a world without any sense of personal time.

The third extreme is savants. Although there is no recognised medical condition with no diagnostic criteria, experts in the field divide savants into three informal categories:

  • Splinter skills (for example, the person who can identify the year of Hoover vacuum manufacture from the sound of the motor. Really!);

  • Talented savant (who has one ‘gift’ – often music or drawing - which stands out in contrast to the to their other disabilities);

  • Prodigious savant (the rarest class of human beings, frequently occurring in autistic patients).

Tom and the Savant

Perhaps the best known is Kim Peek, who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. Peek has memorised Shakespeare’s entire corpus, and ‘speed reads’ telephone directories - double-page spreads, simultaneously.


Two groups of people who are less extreme, but show considerable memory skills, are London cab drivers and excellent chess players.

To qualify for her or his Green Badge licence, a driver must pass ‘the Knowledge’ examination. 25,000 streets, 1,400 landmarks and buildings. MRI scans of cabbie brains show an average of 7% increase of their Right Posterior Hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with spatial thinking.

Contrary to common thought, excellent chess players don’t differentiate by thinking lots of moves in advance. Instead they visualise ‘pawn structures’, see ‘exposed’ rooks, consider the ‘strength balance’ at a point in the game. All this is being compared to a personal memory bank of past games – the personal and the replay and analysis of grandmaster matches.

Not all information is remembered with the same clarity or immediacy. Generally, we are especially capable of spatial and visual memories.

Magnus Carlsen turns a blind eye

For an example of daily memory ‘weakness’, just consider the title of George Miller’s paper The Magic Number Seven: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Miller’s research shows that the human range for short-term memory is seven individual letters or numbers.

That’s why credit card numbers are presented in four groups of just four digits, and mobile numbers are three+four+four. Easier to communicate, but even this short batches can be hard to remember without constant repetition.

You now know your mobile number by rote learning; what is your partner’s?

One of the best-known memory techniques for remembering numbers takes a leaf out of the synaesthesia syndrome and converts abstracts (numbers) into concrete (pictures).

First step: transpose digits into letters. 0 = S or Z (remember ‘Zero’); 1 = T or D (remember one downstroke); 2 = N (two downstrokes); 3 = M (three points at the base); and so on. Vowels have no meaning in this ‘phonetic alphabet’.

Use the sounds associated with each letter and mix in vowels to create a word. 123 might be DeNiM; 3210 could be MiNTS. So, 1233210 might be a packets of polo mints in the pocket of your jeans.

The words aren’t important; it’s the image that matters. We are better at remembering pictures than codes.

D-Day Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944

Another technique that Foer covers is ‘chunking’, decreasing the number of items to remember. Try the following string of digits: 060644091101. Given your seven-digit span, a dozen is a tough ask. But combine into two groups – 06/06/44 and 09/11/01 – and all you need to remember is D-Day and Twin Towers.


Why do these - and many other memory tools – matter? (If you’re a Brit, I bet you can complete the title of this blog post.)

Why does Foer’s participation in the 2016 US Championship matter– with its 50-line poem, 99 names and faces, 300 random words, 2000 digits and 52 shuffled cards speed test?

We now have books, photos, libraries, museums, and increasingly digital devices. Everything we think we need to know is only a few keystrokes or screen taps away.

And with it comes the devaluing of our internal memories. “But I have a smartphone and Wikipedia– what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is the Latin word inventio; the root of invention and the origin of inventory. The more we know, the more old ideas we can re-call and connect with other old ideas to create something new.

Paradoxically, to build knowledge we need knowledge. As Foer writes:

“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember… Now more than ever, as the role of memory is our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember.”

Guilio Camino's memory palace

MeW is the product of extensive and intensive research. From Guilio Camllo and his wooden amphitheatre memory palace, to Wilder Penfield the neurosurgeon who uncovered long-forgotten memories using electrical probes. From Socrates, who thought writing would lead to intellectual and moral decay, to Professor Alphonse Loisette, author of C19th memory improvement guides. From Thomas Acquinas and Matteo Ricci to Michel Siffre and Tony Buzan.

There is only one mnemonic authority missing. How did Foer forget Harry Lorayne?

(1551 words. Thanks for reading.)

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