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Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

17 January 2013

It’s a typical November rainy day in Vancouver. But it doesn’t feel like it. Something feels out of place. Actually, everything feels out of place. I approach my apartment building near Metrotown and notice there is a (1) grizzly bear passed out next to the apartment entrance. His thick fur is soaked from the rain. I can see that he tried to claw his way into my building to seek shelter from the rain. He probably gave up as he grew tired. I sneak my way into the building without waking him up. As I make my way across the front lobby, I walk past a curious fish tank. The (2) fish don’t have any eyes. When I moved into the building it was a novelty, but now I don’t think much of it. I walk to my suite door and come across two large bags of (3) beans. The kind you buy at Costco. Someone must have left them at my door. I cautiously enter my suite since I hear noise inside. I decide to investigate the kitchen first. On the left counter I see vegetables surrounding a charismatic (4) mushroom as he entertains them with his singing and jokes. On the right I see (5) three tomatoes inhabiting my toaster oven. One of them has just been crushed into a ketchup-like texture. I peek into my living room and see a (6) koala bear on my couch streaming the 2010 (7) World Cup on my 27” iMac. Having seen enough I head off to work to visit one of the local (8) dams for a project. I start my car and open the parking lot (9) fence. I drive past the garbage dumpster as the (10) seagulls have their lunch. Everything was out of place.

The story I just shared with you never happened. It’s a story I created to memorize some corny jokes. I could have chosen to memorize the jokes by repeating them to myself, or perhaps writing them out on paper, but I decided to try an Ancient Greek technique called method of loci. Better known as the memory palace. I learnt this technique in a mind shattering book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Josh Foer. (In case you are wondering, I came across the book from Bill Gates’ top reads for 2012).

We live in an era that assumes we know more today than yesteryear, and with this flawed paradigm you would expect that the ancient cultures knew very little in comparison to today. Josh Foer proves this worldview wrong with his book. People in the Ancient World didn’t have access to paper, books, the Internet, or smartphones. They needed to use a proven system to remember things – which is what the memory palace did.

What exactly is a memory palace? Think of a memory palace as a file cabinet for images. You create vivid memorable images that relate what you need to remember and stage them into rooms you can visualize from real life (experts can create fake memory palaces).

For example, imagine your childhood home. This is a place you know intimately. The colour of the walls. The temperature of the floors. The cigarette burns in the sofa. The arrangement of the furniture. The lighting in each room. It is a good starting point if you are looking to use this technique. Let’s say you need to remember a grocery list for your student diet:

  • milk
  • onions
  • potato chips

Picture a cow that feasts on some Sugar Crisp cereal after it has spilled onto the kitchen floor. You see your mom by the kitchen sink crying hysterically, but you aren’t sure if it is because of the spilled cereal or the onions she is chopping. You hop over to the living room to see a bag of humanoid potato chips eating chips from his own bag as he watches TV. He asks you if you have a staring problem. This is quite a silly technique, but after reading this book I’d imagine the next time you are at the grocery store you’d have no problem remembering my short grocery list.

People who compete in memory competitions use the memory palace as a platform for remembering everything – from memorizing random digits to a deck of shuffled cards. There are additional techniques you can layer onto the system, such as assigning a Person Action Object (PAO) image for numbers between 00-99. For example, my personal PAO system can have the number 60 can be President Kennedy smoking a Cuban cigar. If I needed to remember the number 60, I can simply visualize JFK smoking a Cuban as he knocks furiously on my front door. The PAO allows you to distill a string of six digits into a single image by combining the person from the first PAO, with the action from the second PAO, and the object from the third PAO.

I can go on more explaining more memory palace techniques, but you are better off reading the actual book.

In case you are curious, I’ve listed out the corny jokes that relate to my introduction story. Try storing them in your own memory palace. The funny thing about memory is that if I were to ask you to repeat the 10 jokes in a week without aid, you would not be able to remember the full list. But if I were to repeat the jokes you would remember which jokes I had told you. Just a thought. Enjoy!

  1. What do you call a bear in the rain? A drizzly bear.
  2. What do you call a fish with no eyes? Fsh.
  3. What did the bean say to the other bean? How’s it bean?
  4. What does everyone want to hangout with the mushroom? Because he’s a fungi.
  5. What did the father tomato say to the baby tomato while on a family walk? Ketchup.
  6. What did the koala bear say in the job interview? I have all of the koalifications.
  7. How do you light up a soccer stadium? With a soccer match.
  8. What does a fish say when he hits a wall? Dam.
  9. Why do they put fences around graveyard? Everyone is dying to get in.
  10. Why do seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay they’d be called bagels.

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