Recently, I opened my refrigerator door and stood there for several minutes trying to remember what it was I wanted. It took only seconds for that culinary desire to disappear from my mind. On a positive note, I did avoid additional calories.
It’s this sort of “memory” – or lack of – that interested writer Joshua Foer in his award-winning book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.” In it he chronicles his fascination with the “art” of memory when, as a science journalist, he covered the U.S. Memory Championships held each spring in New York City. This fascination led to Foer becoming a contest competitor the following year…and winning. How? Foer learned memory techniques – such as associating numbers or things with odd and colorful imagery thus proving that anyone can improve their remembering skills. What he also learned was “that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for.”
“Moonwalking with Einstein” was named to Amazon.com’s Top 20 Best Books of 2011 , New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year, O Magazine’s Top 5 Nonfiction books of 2011, Discover Magazine’s Best Science books of 2011, and to many other year-end book lists.
Lori: What is your writing process?
Joshua: I’m still trying to figure out a process. The only thing I’ve figured out so far is that if I don’t get it done by lunchtime, it’s not likely to get done.
You’re the younger brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals). Is “writing” a discussion topic when the two of you get together?
We talk about pretty much everything but writing.
Tell us about the role of memorization in today’s world. Is it a lost art? Are books and technology preventing our brains from storing information like it used to hundreds of years ago?
Not preventing, per se. But I do think we don’t rely on our memories to the extent that folks once did. We don’t have to.
What sorts of things/items did you routinely lose or forget before bettering your memory and writing your book?
I can be pretty absent-minded. I’m at the Tucson airport right now, which reminds me of the time a few years back when my wife and I were supposed to come here on vacation. I forgot the date, and we missed our flight.
In your book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” your memory coach, Ed Cooke, proclaimed that “a heroic person should be able to withstand about 10 years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed.” Do you consider yourself a heroic person in that regard? How many years could you withstand?
I think Ed’s tongue may have been embedded in his cheek when he said that. That said, I wouldn’t last five minutes.
Explain “the Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”
That’s the title of a famous paper in the psychology literature. It refers to the universal carrying capacity of our short-term working memories. We can only hold about seven (plus or minus two) things in our heads at one time.
Reportedly, Columbia Pictures has optioned your book. Who would you like to play you?
Memoir writers make it their business to tap into their memory banks for material. What would you suggest as the best way for them to facilitate that?
In vino veritas.
Do you continue to hone your memory six years after winning the memory competition? If so, how?
I hung up my cleats after winning the US memory championship. I don’t compete anymore.
You are a co-founder of an interesting online site called Atlas Obscura (http://atlasobscura.com) which is a self-described tour-guide to the world’s most wondrous places. Which is your favorite and why?
In Cherapungee, India, there are canyon-spanning bridges grown over many years from the roots of living trees. How cool is that?
What particular aspect of science enthralls you?
Once you start asking one question, it inevitably leads you to another, and another, and another.
What are you working on right now? Any upcoming books/articles in the works?
I’m in the early stages of working on another book. I can’t say anything more about it right now, because I really don’t know what will become of the research I’m doing. Maybe nothing will come of it.