Moonwalking with Einstein (PDF)

The art and science of remembering everything

Moonwalking with Einstein (PDF here) is not only a book about memory but also a book that portraits the inner world of memory competitions around the world.

The author started the journey of reporting on how to become a memory athlete and ended up training and winning the US Memory Championship of that year.

I enjoyed the book a lot because it helps to give us context on how these techniques are used by professionals nowadays and help us explore the potential of adopting this kind of technique in our daily lives.

> We need to cultivate our ability to remember. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. -Josh Foer

Please find my notes below.

The Smartest Man is Hard to Find

  • To improve our memory, we have to “think in more memorable ways.”
  • Simonides of Ceos was the inventor of the memory palace.
  • Romans Cicero and Quintilian where the ones who wrote the instruction manuals of he ars memorativa.

The Man Who Remembered Too Much

  • There’s this experiment where participants are shown 10.000 images and then are asked to signal which are the images that were in the initial set from different pairs of images, people would remember 90% of the images that were shown to them briefly. We remember everything.
  • Psychologist Willem Wagenaar for six years, from 1978 to 1984 kept a diary of the one or two most notable events that happened to him each day. He wrote every detail of each event, with whom he was, where it occurred, and what happened.
    • In 1984 he began testing his memories and pulling random cards to see if he remembered anything. He remembered directly 80% of the events just pulling the cards. The 20% that he couldn’t remember he contacted the persons involved and, given the right cues, he managed to remember 100% of all the events in his cards.
  • One thing that is clear mentions the author, the nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception, some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web.
  • After a study of MRI with mental athletes compared to normal people they determined that they have the same brains. Actually, all the memory athletes do is to manufacture synesthesia.
  • The Baker/baker paradox. We would remember a face if we knew the person is a baker, because we remember everything associated with bakers, but we won’t remember a face if we knew the last name Baker because the only thing we know about the last name Baker is actually that face, Baker. That’s it.
  • The more data points we have to connect the concepts of ideas in our heads the easier is going to be to remember them.
  • This is the same then of the expert paradox, where experts remember more of what their field because they know more of their field, so they don’t have to know everythng from scratch.

The Expert Expert

  • Our ability to process information and make decisions in the world is limited by a fundamental constrain: we can only think about seven things at a time.
  • Short term memory act as filter and avoid that every piece of new information to be store directly on the long term memory.
  • Chunking is a way of increasing the size of those 7 bits of information.
  • Chunking is the reason phone numbers are broken into groups of four.
  • During the 20s they studied chess masters to see if they see more moves ahead or were more inteligent. They weren’t. They have internalized more chunks of plays in the head, that was all. Is the accumulation of “experiential thinking”.
  • A great memory isn’t just a by-product of expertise, IT’S THE ESSENCE OF IT.
  • Our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses, in a continuos feedback loop. Everything we see, hear and smell is inflected by all the things we have seen, heard and smelled in the past.
    • Interpreting the world and acting on it are rolled up in the act of remembering.

4 The Most Forgetful Man in the World

  • Without time there would be no memory, but without memory would time exist?
  • Do animals have memory? What would happen if we didn’t have memory? We would be all day long chasing our instincts.
  • Life is structured by our memories of events.
  • Monotony collapses time.
  • Novelty unfolds time.
  • We should take exotic vacations and break routines to increase psicological time.
  • Memory is divided in declarative or explicit and non-declarative or implicit.
  • Declarative memory is divided into semantic memory and episodic memory.
  • Semantic memory are facts and concepts not located in space and time.
  • Episodic memories are located in space and time.
  • Non-declarative memories are things we know unconsciously such as how to ride a bike.

5 The Memory Palace

  • The memory palace is a way of “elaborative encoding”.
  • Memory can be trained using images to represent what we want to remember and places to store those images.
  • Memory palaces have to be intimately familiar.
  • We can have thousands of memory palaces for different topics.
  • Associative hooks are the pieces of information that exist in our brains to which we associate new information.
  • Associative hooks are good to remember information.
  • Images that grab our attention are better to remember information.
    • Exaggerate proportions, imagine taste and smell.
    • Make them funnier, lewder, and more bizarre.
    • The best types of images are about jokes and sex, specially jokes about sex.
    • Make the images animated.
    • Desfigurate the images or introduce something that calls our attention like blood.
    • Also good to have a little bit of supernatural things going on.
    • The more unique the better.

6 How to Memorize a Poem

  • Training starts with at least a dozen memory palaces.
  • Proffesionals have hundreds of palaces.
  • Abstract words could be memorized using the sound of the word in association with an image.

7 The End of Remembering

  • People started to forget more when they discovered writing.
  • People may have become even more forgetful after the Internet and mobile phones.
  • Scriptio Continua was the type of writing in the antiquity.
  • It had no space between words and the letters were only sounds for the mount that you have to speak in order to comprehend.
  • You would memorize the text to serve as a reminder of the words.
  • We don’t speak with spaces, only on punctuation signs.
  • Information was hard to find before 16th century because it was stored in rolls, after that book bookshelves were invented.
  • Indexes, page numbers and table of contents were not common.
  • Book indexes have only one data point, brain indexes have hundreds of data points storing information in associational manner.
  • Index invention was a huge development as it allowed to access books as we access our memories, permitting to go from idea to idea.
  • Our memory is a dense network of connections where we can skip endlessly from memory to memory.
  • Reading was transformed from intensive to extensive after the invention of the printing press in 1440.
  • Today we read books extensively, without much sustain focus and mostly only once.
  • For Bruno memory training was the key to spiritual enlightenment.

8 The Ok Plateau

  • Johann Winklemann invented the Major System in 1648.
  • The PAO technique means person-action-object.
  • Every two digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. (could be celebrities)
  • Any 6 digit number could be converted in a person doing the action of the second pair in the object of the third pair.
  • This system generates a unique image for every number from 0 to 999.999.
  • Experts don’t do regular practice, they watch themselves fail deliberately, they practice failing.
  • You can practice failing using borrowed genius procedure and trying to understand how that genius fail.
  • Benjamin Graham did this by reconstructing arguments on famous publications of the time using his own logic and then comparing that reconstruction with the original.
  • A skill is improved by trying to have some degree of conscious control over it while practicing, trying to avoid autopilot.
  • When typing the best way of doing it is to force yourself to type faster even while you are making some mistakes.
  • You have to practice deliberately to stop the skills from backsliding.
  • You can better memorize images of the PAO system by:
    • how the characters look, feel, smalee, taste, and sound.
    • how they walk
    • the cut of their clotehes,
    • their social attitude
    • their sexual preferences
    • their propensity to gratuitous viiolence.

9 The Talented Tenth

  • The science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly created images that link disparate ideas.
  • The ability to come up with new ideas increases if you improve your ability to make associations and if you have more ideas at your disposal.
  • Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory and the mother of all the other Muses.
  • The art of memory was ultimately not merely for recording but also a tool for invention and composition.
  • In antiquity, brains were organized as modern cabinets where all the information could be recombined and strung together on the fly.
  • You can know more easily if you know more.
  • Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.
  • Memory and intelligence seems to feed each other with a feedback loop.

11 The U.S. Memory Championship

  • You will remember more if you enjoy and savor the images.
  • When going through the memory palace make sure the windows are open and bright sun light is entering through.


  • We have to pay attention to the world around us.
  • Remembering can only happen if we decide to take notice.