Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
is a book of non-fiction by freelance science journalist Joshua Foer. In the book, Foer explores the world of competitive memorization, learning tips on how to improve memory function. Using a memory coach and tips from his study of the art of memorization, Foer trains for a year and eventually enters the 2006 USA Memory Championship, which he wins, going on to represent the United States at the World Memory Championship in London.
Joshua Foer became a best seller with Moonwalking with Einstein
, his first major work as a freelance journalist. Penguin published the book in 2011, offering Foer a $1.2 million advance for the work. Foer refers to his work in Moonwalking with Einstein
as “participatory journalism,” in which average citizens take on the role of a journalist by collecting and analyzing data and publishing non-fiction works based on real events. Foer's work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate,
and The Nation
. He has a regular column at Cabinet
called “A Minor History Of.”
Foer begins his book as a simple investigation into the underpinnings of memory and how it works. Studying those with enhanced memory, people who compete in competitive memorization, he found himself at the 2005 US Memory Championship. Before he tells the full story of his experience at the Memory Championship, however, he gets into the science behind the creation of new memories, and the way that the West has adopted a mentality that is opposed to rote memorization in schools, a viewpoint that Foer fundamentally disagrees with. Foer goes into the history of memorization from the ancient Romans to the modern technique of Mind Mapping, coined by educational consultant Tony Buzan. As he tells this history, Foer explains that memory is not about raw brain capacity but about training your brain by practicing a variety of memorization techniques.Moonwalking with Einstein
also includes profiles of famous competitive memorizers. He briefly discusses Kim Peek, who has a remarkable memory and 87-point IQ and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man
Foer spends more of his time with current competitor Daniel Tammet, whom he first experiences via a documentary film. Tammet has Asperger's Syndrome and is considered an autistic savant, meaning that he has skills beyond the capacity of most neurotypical people – Tammet's skills include enhanced memory and rote memorization. Foer watches Tammet use his index finger to trace shapes on the table in front of him while he is reciting memorized numerals or equations and then interviews other memory experts on Tammet's techniques. While Tammet claims that he uses synesthesia, an ability to associate smells, colors, sounds, or other stimuli with colors or shapes, to memorize long strings of numbers or equations, other experts are skeptical. Ben Pridmore, another memory champion, tells Foer that his skills aren't as uncommon as he'd like people to believe.
Foer continues his investigation into Tammet and finds some strange inconsistencies. Tammet, for example, won a gold medal at a previous Memory World Championship in the “Names and Faces” event, though most people with savant syndrome struggle with facial recognition. Foer also finds online courses that Tammet used to teach about increasing memory capabilities and advertisements for psychic phone readings. All of these tricks, Foer believes, are not indicative of an inherent ability due to a neurological disorder but are actually skills that can be taught. This would mean that despite Tammet's claim that he is unique because of his savant syndrome, he is in fact just a skilled student of mnemonics.
To contradict Tammet's claims about his own unique ability to memorize, Foer decides to join the competitive memory game. He enlists Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke, a British coach, and trains for a year in traditional memory enhancement techniques to prepare himself for the competition. After learning dozens of tips to enhance his memory ability, Foer, who has no known conditions that might suggest he has an increased capacity to remember, wins the 2006 US Championship, breaking the U.S. record for speed cards, which involves the memorization of a shuffled deck of fifty-two playing cards. At the World Championship in London later that year, Foer won the bronze in the “Names and Faces” event but did not manage to acquire the title of Grand Master of Memory.
Overall, Foer proves through his time studying memory and his placement in the US Memory Championship that his theory about memory is correct – it is a series of skills and tricks, not based on inherent ability. This satisfies his overall belief that enhancing memory is an important part of education and human advancement, contradicting prestigious memorizers like Tammet, who claim that enhanced memory is only for those with special abilities.