MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In the 1960s, the writer George Plimpton pitched to some major league all-stars, tried out as an NFL quarterback, sparred with the great boxer Archie Moore and then wrote about it. And ever since, writers have been taking up a whole range of athletic pursuits for the experience and for the material.
Well, Joshua Foer presents us with an interesting variation on that theme. His book, "Moonwalking with Einstein" describes his brief but rather successful career as a mental athlete. "Moonwalking with Einstein" is about the art and science of memory. Joshua Foer, welcome to the program.
Mr. JOSHUA FOER (Author, "Moonwalking with Einstein"): Thanks so much for having me.
SIEGEL: I should say first that while most practitioners of athletic participatory journalism discover that the gap between the competitive elite and the eager reporter is a vast chasm. You actually achieved great heights in the U.S. memory championships.
Mr. FOER: Yeah, I mean, I certainly didn't expect the story would end up where it did. I should, I suppose, begin by explaining that there is a rather bizarre contest that's held every spring called the United States Memory Championship in which people get together and try to see who can remember the most random numbers, the most lines of poetry, the most shuffled decks of playing cards.
And I had shown up at that contest as a science journalist basically expecting to find, I don't know, what I thought would be the Super Bowl of savants. But as I talked to the competitors, I discovered something rather different, which was these guys were not savants, they didn't have photographic memories. Rather, they had trained their memories. And they said anybody could do it. And I said, anybody? And they said, yeah, you know, even you. We could teach you.
SIEGEL: And you went into training.
Mr. FOER: Yeah. I came under the influence of a guy named Ed Cook, who has one of the best trained memories in the world. And I spent the better part of a year training my memory, also trying to understand how memory works, why it sometimes fails us, what its potential might be.
SIEGEL: All of which brings me to the cover art of your book and the title, "Moonwalking with Einstein," which is displayed over the image of, you know, some rooms, in two cases connected by stairs. One of them is sort of a bathing beauty sitting on the floor. Another one has a sumo wrestler. Another one there's a nurse with a monkey hanging from the ceiling. And I'd like you to explain the significance of that - that sort of what seems like utterly random image.
Mr. FOER: Well, the title itself, "Moonwalking with Einstein," actually references a memory device that I used while training my memory. The image, Einstein moonwalking, is kind of goofy. And the fact that it's goofy is part of what makes it memorable.
SIEGEL: Is he walking around like Michael Jackson or is he on the moon?
Mr. FOER: I'm imagining him with a white glove, but I suppose you could conjure up any image that you wanted.
Mr. FOER: But the idea is that an image that is so unlike any other image that you've ever thought of is one that's more likely to stick in your mind.
SIEGEL: So we can attach things that we want to remember to these vivid images that we can summon to memory.
Mr. FOER: Yeah. That's exactly how it works. It's a kind of code.
SIEGEL: Some of the devices that you describe are really quite old. And I'd like you talk about the memory palace for a moment - how it works and who came up with the idea.
Mr. FOER: Sure. Most of the techniques that are used in one of these memory competitions goes back to ancient Greece. These are the same techniques that in the Middle Ages scholars used to memorize entire books. And they all more or less come down to the notion that as bad as we are at remembering a poem or a phone number, we're really good at remembering certain kinds of visual and spatial information.
And so the idea behind these memory techniques that are used in these competitions is to transform the kind of information we're not very good at remembering into the kinds of visual spatial memory that our minds are actually built for.
SIEGEL: So I learn to visualize in my mind, say, a house, my own home, someplace I'm very familiar with, and as I'm trying to remember numbers or images that have nothing whatever to do with my house, I mentally park them in places, associate them with very vivid images that I have in my mind. Put one in the mailbox, you know, one in the sink and all that and go around my house doing this.
Mr. FOER: That's actually a terrific description of how a memory palace works. The idea is when you walk back through that space, if you've done it correctly, you'll see the images that you left behind when you were initially remembering that information.
SIEGEL: Well, after a year of preparation, working out, improving your memory, you go to the U.S. Memory Championships, what was it like?
Mr. FOER: Well, a memory contest is a bit like the SATs. It's a lot of people sitting around at desks scribbling away answers furiously and then handing them in at the front of the room. It's not quite as sexy as a spelling bee, but it's definitely got its drama.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of memory championship)
Mr. FOER: Queen of hearts?
Unidentified Man: Queen of hearts is the correct second card.
Mr. FOER: Nine of clubs.
Unidentified Man: There is the third card.
Mr. FOER: King of hearts.
Unidentified Man: There is the fourth card.
Mr. FOER: King of diamonds.
Unidentified Man: We have our new national memory champion is now Josh Foer. Congratulations.
(Soundbite of applause)
SIEGEL: You actually won the U.S. Memory Championship.
Mr. FOER: Yeah, I mean, having entered it as this experiment in participatory journalism, the experiment sort of went awry.
SIEGEL: And you achieved, for example, a breakthrough in terms of being able to memorize a deck of cards.
Mr. FOER: Ultimately, I mean, it's - I set a new U.S. record in that event, in the card memorization event, which I really hadn't expected. I think that record has subsequently fallen, though.
SIEGEL: But you have to tell us what your record was.
Mr. FOER: At the time it was a minute and 40 seconds.
SIEGEL: You have to explain what you did in the minute and 40 seconds.
Mr. FOER: Sure. In a minute and 40 seconds, I remembered the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards and then recalled it within five minutes. Now, the best guys in the world can do this in under 30 seconds, which sounds almost extraterrestrial and is really something to behold.
SIEGEL: Now, since that time, do you continue to practice? Do you continue to work out and try to memorize the odd license plate that goes by or are you out of shape?
Mr. FOER: Oh, I'm a fat schlub at this point. You know, I basically hung up my cleats after winning that contest. It was sort of an experiment in participatory journalism and I got my answer. And the sad truth is, I still forget where I parked my car all the time. I still forget why it was that I opened the refrigerator door. I still forget to put down the toilet seat.
SIEGEL: And yet, those are visual experiences that we think might imprint a little bit more easily.
Mr. FOER: You'd think so. I mean, the thing about these techniques is they only work if you remember to use them. That's sort of the funny thing. You've got to remember to remember.
SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Foer, thank you very much for talking with us about the book.
Mr. FOER: Thank you.
SIEGEL: The book is "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything."