I changed how I live after reading Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein"


Recently I heard about the journalist Joshua Foer who embarked on a remarkable journey in which he ended up covering a story about memory and then actually training his own and in the process becoming the United States Memory champion. I watched his hilarious and inspiring TED talk and ended up reading his book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”.

After reading this book, I made a firm decision to immediately change my life.

A confession: I have all my life, since childhood, struggled with what I considered a bad memory (compared to “normal”, as in my peers).

Examples of my concern about my memory

I took a quick look at my blog posts in the past year, to see where I might have bemoaned my bad memory, and here are a few examples:

Major life decisions I made based on my belief I had a bad memory

Here are some things that I’ve told almost nobody in my life before, but now feel I should speak out about.


I shaped my entire experience in school around trying to avoid having to rely on my memory. History and other subjects terrified me. I was so conscious about my problems that in middle school, during one of the Reading is Fundamental free book distributions, I greedily picked up Harry Lorayne’s “How to Develop a Super Power Memory”. Unfortunately, after looking at it, I was discouraged by its odd ideas and just didn’t really give any of them a try at all.

Biology terrified me, to the point that in my first year of high school, I chose not to take any science course at all because biology would have been the first course for me to take. Later, I did take biology, delayed from most of my college-bound peers, in the tenth grade, and survived it (but have almost no memory of what I “learned”). In my senior year of high school, I took Advanced Placement biology, which was a total nightmare of memorization, solely for the purpose of not ever having to take biology again when going to college (and in fact, I did get credit for it and therefore succeeded in my goal). Note: since childhood, I was actually very fascinated by biology, so it was with sadness that I decided I had to avoid further study in biology.

In addition to avoidance, my fear of memorization also pushed me into certain directions based primarily on the lack of need for memorization: by the end of high school, I had discovered that math and physics were great for me because they did not require much memorization. Everything was based primarily on basic principles that, if you learned, you could build on top of using logical reasoning rather than memorization. Logic was the connective that kept things together in my mind.

Language learning

Learning foreign languages has always been fascinating to me, ever since as a side effect of studying for spelling bees in elementary school and middle school, I found a trick to help deal with my memory problems: looking up the etymologies of words in the dictionary enabled me to see enough logical and historical connections between words to be able to spell pretty well. But when it came to remembering and using the meanings of words as I learned French, for example, I was lost. I loved learning grammar because it was about figuring out the logical patterns, but hated learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, without a sufficient working vocabulary, my facility in languages was limited in oral communication, and even reading texts was painful, requiring constant dictionary lookup.

So even though I’ve actually taken entire courses in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and taught myself Latin, I’ve always felt that I somehow wasted my time, because I mostly remember grammar and pronunciation.

My new motivation

I was excited to watch Joshua Foer’s talk and read his book, because if an average guy can become the national memory champion through proven techniques, then a below-average guy like me should be able to get to average and even beyond. Given that I believe that I am capable of improving at many things I’m not so good at, why have I spent so much of my life not believing that about my memory? I created this self-limiting myth that I now intend to shatter. 2013 will be the year when I make massive improvements to my memory.

The book

I loved Joshua Foer’s book. He is not only a very good storyteller, taking the reader deep into the strange world of memory championships, but he also explains the time-honored techniques that every memory champion uses and that he used, and describes the scientific research on memory. There is no trickery involved, just changing your attitude and putting in the work.

The book is not just a good story and a how-to manual, though. It is really a philosophical exploration of what it means to be human, and what we have lost since the ancient times when memory was not only useful but critical, because we didn’t have the technological aids that we have now. It made me think about how I should balance time-saving technology and old-fashioned ways of dealing with life.

The principle behind memory techniques

The main idea behind remembering well is that we have to encode memories in such a way that they are truly concrete and vivid, because that’s what we humans remember.

The “memory palace” is a well-known technique (that I remembered from Harry Lorayne’s book in my childhood, but never implemented). It involves creating a space in your mind that you already know, and then put things you want to remember into that space by associating them with images located in specific places in the space.

Foer discussed one of the open secrets of how to come up with vivid images to remember: “When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind”. He quotes ancient handbooks on memory that advise using images of beautiful women, or images of “singular ugliness”, modified through disfigurement or comic effects. This can get awkward. When he was training to memorize a deck of cards, he writes, “it invariably meant inserting family members into scenes so raunchy I feared I was upgrading my memory at the expense of tormenting my subconscious. The indecent acts my own grandmother has had to commit in the service of my remembering the eight of hearts are truly unspeakable (if not, as I might have previously guessed, unimaginable)”. Also, his coach Ed said, “I eventually had to excise my mother from my deck… I recommend you do the same”.

My plans for memory improvement

I’m starting small with my memory improvement.


As a “test”, I’ve gotten back into language learning/review, using Duolingo (about which I’ll write much more later), focusing on Spanish, which I took three semesters of a decade ago, but have been embarrassed to feel incompetent in.

In the past, I had no reliable way to remember new words as I learn them. Now, I paused for 5-10 seconds, maybe even longer if I need to (I expect to become more quick and fluid with experience), to create a suitable image.

You don’t really want to know what kinds of images I create for my memory. I think one of the problems I always had with my memory was being ashamed of “inappropriate” or “illogical” imagery. I always wanted to remember through logical association. Now, I have given myself permission to be as raunchy, disgusting, sarcastic, or bizarre as I need, and just accept that. So in some sense, embracing memory improvement, for me, involves self-acceptance. I created shocking images to remember the Spanish words for “cranberry” and “box”, for example, but they do the job.

I’ve already seen huge improvements in my learning of new words, which I do every day. I wish I had used this technique years, decades ago.

My goal: getting the vocabulary down will be a big part of becoming actually functional in Spanish. I would like to achieve near-native conversational Spanish ability in a year.


I have always been bad at remembering numbers. I intend to set up a practice for using the Major System in order to get into remembering numbers better. It’s embarrassing and potentially actually dangerous when I don’t have my phone or computer on me and I am supposed to remember a phone number, for example.

My goal: remember all numbers that should be important in my life. (Sorry, pi, you are not important.)


When I think about it, there is so much that I could gain from remembering all kinds of things better. I will explore my ideas later, after first mastering the fundamentals and gaining confidence.


In a real sense, we are what we remember. If we don’t remember, then what was the point? Joshua Foer’s experience and his book have inspired me to move forward in recapturing one of the ancient skills and delights, that of remembering.

How do you feel about your memory? Is it something you care about improving? Or is our technological outsourcing of our memory perfectly fine?

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