Book Review: “Moonwalking with Einstein”

Filed under: Book Review,Print | Tags:,

by Joshua Foer, c.2011, The Penguin Press$26.95 / $33.50 Canada320 pages

Maybe your mother was right. When she said you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached, she might’ve been onto something.

You completely missed an important meeting yesterday. You’ve left vital documents at home on the counter (lotta good they’ll do there), you filed something yesterday but can’t find it now, and every morning is a mad scramble for hide-and-go-keys. And you forgot your lunch twice this week.

Embarrassing? Can’t remember a thing these days? Maybe you need to step up your game. In the new book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, you’ll see how it’s done, times ten.

Imagine life minus your smart phone, calendar, chime-reminders, online nudges, and sticky notes. What did we ever do without them? Author Joshua Foer says that, before the invention of inexpensive printing, memory wasn’t just everything — it was the only thing. People with prodigious memories were the Rock Stars of their time.

So why can’t you — with all your gadgets and reminders — remember where you put that document? Why can’t you remember to grab your lunch on the way out the door?

As it turns out, there’s a good excuse for your lapse. Psychologists say there’s a “curve of forgetting” that starts the second you learn something, and if there are more than seven components, the problem worsens. Phone numbers, you see, are what they are for a reason.


But life’s details are not completely forgotten, because everything you learn is stored somewhere in your grey matter. It’s just a matter of recalling it correctly, which is something you obviously didn’t do with lunch. The nice thing is that learning — even reading a book review — physically changes your brain in some way.

So what can you do to help your defective cranium?

Foer went on a mission to find out, and landed in a world of memory athletes who can memorize and repeat back (in order) thousands of random numbers, hundreds of shuffled playing cards, and thousands of words, names, and faces. And in his quest for total recall, what Foer did with his own brain surprised even him…

Has that old “string-around-your-finger” thing failed again? Sick of seeming like a schmo? Then don’t forget this title: “Moonwalking with Einstein.”

Part serious brain science, part history, and part rompish fun, author Joshua Foer takes a peek inside our heads to learn why we have few strong memories of our toddlerhoods, what it’s like to live with a complete loss of short-term memory, why Malcolm Gladwell was right about practice, how scientists are trying to “see” memories in our brains, how our brains compensate for memory loss, and why you can recall your whereabouts on 9/11/01 but you don’t know where you left your glasses.

I enjoyed this book, both for the look inside our heads and for the ways we can make what’s there work better.

If your instant recall isn’t so instant, or if your noggin needs a nudge, “Moonwalking with Einstein” is a book to find. Reading it may help you get a head.

Book reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 and never goes anywhere without a book. Her columns run in the Business Journal every other week.