Thursday, April 28, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

When I first saw that Joshua Foer had written a book, my initial reaction was, "Why not ride the coattails of big brother?" I've loved Jonathan Safron Foer's two novels and thought his non-fiction work on vegetarianism was good, too.

But it turned out I was just ignorant of what Joshua Foer has accomplished as a journalist. He is a mighty fine writer, in his own way just as talented as Jonathan. He also seems somehow less serious yet more driven. Maybe I'm reading into things too much. Or basing things too much, in part, on Colbert Report interviews.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Joshua Foer
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jonathan Safran Foer
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The interview with Colbert explains the book pretty well. Foer (from here on out, any mention of Foer by me is Joshua) is investigating memory competitors and finds that none of them are gifted in any unusual way. That is, their brains aren't any different from yours or mine. What is different is that they have trained themselves using techniques so that their memory is extremely well-developed.

Foer begins training with a memory expert from England and over the course of a year develops his skills enough that he becomes the U.S. Memory Champion. The book largely is about his journey with sidebars into the science of the brain and memory.

To me, there was a big question over whether or not the effort is worth it. The tricks used to improve memory take a lot of work and Foer finds that for all his ability to memorize lists of digits or decks of playing cards, none of his work helps him with things like remembering where he put his keys.

I'll wrap up with two things I particularly found interesting. One was a technique called the memory palace that is the primary device used by competitive memory experts. It was developed way back in ancient Greece. The idea is that you take a place with which you are very familiar, like your home or childhood home. Then, when you have a list of things to memorize, you picture each item in a strange circumstance in a spot of the home and then you tour your home in your memory. For example, say you have a grocery list. The first item is tomatoes. You picture a gorilla on your mailbox juggling tomatoes. The next item is ground meat. Maybe you picture a car made out of ground meat parked in your driveway. The example Foer gave that still sticks with me is cottage cheese. His example is picturing Claudia Schiffer soaking in a tub of cottage cheese. In my example here, Claudia and the vat are in the doorway of my home. Keep going through your home and your list is complete.

It seems counterintuitive at first that such a technique should work. Because now you are memorizing not only cottage cheese, but a hot tub, Claudia Schiffer and the door to your home. But the outrageous image coupled with something familiar works as a trigger point and helps you remember.

The other noteworthy thing to me is that Foer works with Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State. Dr. Ericsson is an expert on experts. He has been in the news recently as media attention has been given to Dan McLaughlin. McLaughlin has been putting a theory of Ericsson's, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert, to test. McLaughlin had never played golf and has been working to put in the hours to become a professional golfer. I find it pretty fascinating and have added McLaughlin's blog to my reader. Ericsson's theory also received a lot of attention in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers.

I mentioned recently about deliberate practice and how I need to be more deliberate in my exercising. Although I have a goal (the marathon), it is a short-term goal and so I haven't been working at with a real plan in mind. I've been thinking a lot about what I want to achieve after the marathon and don't have an answer. You really need to have a goal in order to deliberately pursue it. So we'll see what comes in the future.

If you couldn't tell based on the length of this review, I really loved Foer's book. I definitely recommend it to everyone.

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