Moonwalking with Einstein

Author(s): Joshua Foer
Published: 2011

Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

This book documents journalist Joshua Foer's journey to becoming the winner of the American memory competition within one year. Foer's story debunks the myth that you're either born with a good or bad memory.

“My own memory was average at best. Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); the food in the oven; that it’s “its” and not “it’s”; my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day; the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar (ouch); my friends’ phone numbers; why I just opened the fridge; to plug in my cell phone; the name of President Bush’s chief of staff; the order of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops; which year the Redskins last won the Super Bowl; to put the toilet seat down.”

The key messages I walked away with are: (1) ordinary people can also get good at remembering things, (2) there are good reasons for why we should try to improve our memory, (3) there are a bunch of techniques out there that you can use to improve your memory.

1. You can and should improve your memory

Core argument: Anyone can become a memory champion!
  • Brain scans show that brains of mental athletes "appear to be indistinguishable from those of the control subjects."
  • Photographic memory is a myth. "Probably the single most common misperception about human memory … is that some people have photographic memories."
Motivation for memorization:

Why should we bother remembering things in the world today when we have external memory aids (e.g. to do lists, phones, books) to remind us of things?

  • Our attitude and use for memorization has changed dramatically since the printing press was invented and even more so in the modern technology age.
  • The lost art of memory: Art of memory used to be very important in many cultures. Greeks viewed reading as an act of remembering. Dominican friar Giordano Bruno saw memory training as the key to spiritual enlightenment.

Foer discusses 2 main reasons why memorization is valuable.

(1) It improves your learning:

You can't have higher-level learning (analysis) without retrieving information. And you can't retrieve information without putting information in there in the first place.

(2) It improves creativity:
  • This sounds ironic because we usually think that memorizing/rote learning is the antithesis to creativity.
  • Tony Buzan (British memory champ, founder of the World Memory Championship in 1991): “The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.”
  • The Latin root of "invention" is the basis of two words in modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. Where do new ideas come from if not some blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on.

2. Tips to Remember Things

The science behind memorization

  • All of our memories are a web of associations.
  • A memory at the most fundamental physiological level is a pattern of connections between the 100 billion neutrons in our brains.
  • If thinking about the word "coffee" makes you think about the colour black and the taste of bitterness, that's a function of a cascade of electrical impulses rocketing around a real physical pathway inside your brain. EXPLOIT THESE PATHWAYS to remember.
  • Why do synesthetics remember things well? One sense is associated with another, triggering memory.
  • The associative nature of our brain is nonlinear, so it's hard to search your memory in a linear 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.

Basic idea of memory tips

"The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don't remember all types of information equally well."

People are generally good at remembering images but terrible at remembering lists of words or number. Drawing on this, most memory technique "change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something so colourful, so exciting, and so different from anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it."

The trick to memorising things is to always associate the thing you are trying to remember with something you can clearly imagine. Suppose you want to remember a person's name, then you want to always associate the sound of a person's name with something you can imagine. This image anchors your visual memory of the person's face to a visual memory connected to the person's name.

Tip 1: Memory palace


  • 2500 year old mnemonic technique from a Latin rhetoric textbook called the Rhetorica ad Herennium (86-82 BC)

Theory behind this technique:

  • Trained memory has two components: images and places.
  • Images represent the contents of what one wishes to remember. Places are where those images are stored.
  • Mental athletes engage the regions of the brains known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual and spatial navigation.
  • Cicero thought that the best way to memorise a speech is point by point, not word by word. One should make an image for each major topic you want to cover and then put each of those images at a locus.

How to use this technique:

  • (1) Convert the information you need to memorise into images.
  • (2) Distribute those images along familiar spatial journeys.
  • Basic idea of memory palace is to create a space in the mind's eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualise, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember.
  • Memory palaces don't need to be an actual palace or a building. They can be routes through town or station stops along a railway or signs of the zodiac.
  • Note that to be maximally memorable, one's images have to appeal to one's own sense of what is colourful and interesting. This differs for everyone!

Examples/Applications: In US memory competition, competitors have to remember a stack of 52 cards that have been shuffled. This is how Foer memorised the following sequence of three cards: four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds.

  • Spades = Himself [committed to long term memory]
  • King of hearts: Michael Jackson moonwalking with a white glove [committed to long term memory]
  • Three of diamonds = Einstein's thick white mane [committed to long term memory]
  • So to memorise the sequence of the three cards (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds) the image that came to his mind was himself moonwalking with Einstein.

Tip 2: Major System


  • Invented by Johann Winkelmann around 1648

How to use this technique:

  • Basic idea is to convert numbers into phonetic sounds, then turn these sounds into words, which are then turned into images for a memory palace.
  • You can use this to remember numbers (turn numbers into letters then into words/images) or to remember words (turn words into numbers).
  • To turn numbers into letters (or vice versa), use this code system:


  • To remember the numbers 3233, the major system gives us 32 = MN (which sort of looks like "MaN") and 33 = MM (which sort of looks like "MoM"). So we can remember the phrase "MAN, your MOM".
  • To remember the numbers 1480, the major system gives us T/D/Th-R-V/F/Ph-S/Z. One combination of this is: D-R-F-S which sounds like "Dwarfs". So my image for this series of numbers can be Snow White and her 7 dwarfs.

Tip 3: Chunking

Idea behind this technique: 

  • This is a method to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item.

How to use this technique:

  • Apply major system + memory palace technique to the broken down chunks. This allows you to take seemingly meaningless information and reinterpret it in light of information that is already stored away in your long-term memory.


  • Breaking down phone numbers into two parts plus an area code/splitting credit card numbers into groups of four.

3. How to keep improving in any skill

3 stages one goes through when acquiring a new skill

  • Cognitive stage: You're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently.
  • Associative stage: you're concentrating less, making fewer major errors.
  • Autonomous stage: You've gotten as good as you need to get the task done and you're basically running on autopilot. You stop improving!

The key to keep improving is to keep out of the autonomous stage. How? PRACTICE FAILING. 1.) focus on technique, 2.) stay goal-oriented, 3.) get constant and immediate feedback.