Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer 2012



12 $265 million industry in 2008: Sharp Brains Report (2009).


27 80 percent of what they’d seen: Lionel Standing (1973), “Learning 10,000 Pictures,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 25, 207-22.

27 2,500 images: Timothy F. Brady, Talia Konkle, et al. (2008), “Visual Long-Term Memory Has a Massive Storage Capacity for Object Details,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, no. 38, 14325-29.

28 “details could eventually be recovered”: Elizabeth Loftus and Geoffrey Loftus (1980), “On the Permanence of Stored Information in the Human Brain,” American Psychologist 35, no. 5, 409-20.

28 Wagenaar came to believe the same thing: Willem A. Wagenaar (1986), “My Memory: A Study of Autobiographical Memory over Six Years,” Cognitive Psychology 18, 225-52.

30 only one case of photographic memory has ever been described in the scientific literature: Photographic memory is often confused with another bizarre—but real—perceptual phenomenon called eidetic memory, which occurs in 2 to 15 percent of children, and very rarely in adults. An eidetic image is essentially a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind’s eye for up to a few minutes before fading away. Children with eidetic memory never have anything close to perfect recall, and they typically aren’t able to visualize anything as detailed as a body of text. In these individuals, visual imagery simply fades more slowly.

30 a paper in Nature: C. F. Stromeyer and J. Psotka (1970), “The Detailed Texture of Eidetic Images,” Nature 225, 346-49.

30 none of them could pull off Elizabeth’s nifty trick: J. O. Merritt (1979), “None in a Million: Results of Mass Screening for Eidetic Ability,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2, 612.

31 “other people having photographic memory”: If anyone alive today has a claim to photographic memory, it’s a British savant named Stephen Wiltshire, who has been called the “human camera” for his ability to create sketches of a scene after looking at it for just a few seconds. But even he doesn’t have a truly photographic memory, I learned. His mind doesn’t work like a Xerox machine. He takes liberties. And curiously, his cameralike abilities extend only to drawing certain kinds of objects and scenes, namely architecture and cars. He can’t, say, look at a page of the dictionary and then instantly recall what was on it. In every case except Elizabeth’s where someone has claimed to have a photographic memory, there has always been another explanation.

31 “none of them ever attained any prominence in the scholarly world”: George M. Stratton (1917), “The Mnemonic Feat of the ’Shass Pollak,’ ” Psychological Review 24, 244-47.

33 a pattern of connections between those neurons: Recently, a paper in the journal Brain and Mind attempted to estimate the capacity of the human brain using a model that treats a memory as something stored not in individual neurons but rather in the connections between neurons. The authors estimated that the human brain can store 108432 bits of information. By contrast, it’s said that there are somewhere on the order of 1078 atoms in the observable universe.

38 physically altered the gross structure of their brains: E. A. Maguire et al. (2000), “Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers,” PNAS 97, 84398-403.

39 not a single significant structural difference turned up: E. A. Maguire, et al (2003), “Routes to Remembering: The Brains Behind Superior Memory,” Nature Neuroscience 6 no.1, 90-95.

40 wouldn’t seem to make any sense: If the mental athletes were also using navigational skills, why didn’t they have enlarged hippocampuses, like the taxi drivers? The likely answer is that mental athletes simply don’t use their navigational abilities nearly as much as taxi drivers.

44 “Baker/baker paradox”: G. Cohen (1990), “Why Is It Difficult to Put Names to Faces?” British Journal of Psychology 81, 287-97.


49 all the hard work of putting food on our tables: I’m speaking here about egglaying chickens, which are distinct from broiler chickens bred to produce meat.

52 “Exceptional Memorizers: Made, Not Born”: K. Anders Ericsson (2003), “Exceptional Memorizers: Made, Not Born,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, no.6, 233-35.

53 volleyball defenders: Much of this research is captured in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman.

65 several opponents at once, entirely in their heads: During the first half of the twentieth century, playing simultaneous games of blindfolded chess against multiple opponents became a fetishized skill in the chess world. In 1947, an Argentinian grand master named Miguel Najdorf set a record by playing forty-five simultaneous games in his mind. It took him twenty-three and a half hours, and he finished with a record of thirty-nine wins, four losses, and two draws, and then was unable to fall asleep for three straight days and nights afterward. (According to chess lore, simultaneous blindfolded chess was once banned in Russia due to the mental health risks.)


69 lab technician called EP: L. Steffanaci et al. (2000), “Profound Amnesia After Damage to the Medial Temporal Lobe: A Neuroanatomical and Neuropsychological Profile of Patient E. P.,” Journal of Neuroscience 20, no. 18, 7024-36.


94 textbook called the Rhetorica ad Herennium: So named after Gaius Herennius, the book’s patron.

94 “This book is our bible”: The little red Loeb Classical Library English/ Latin edition of the book has the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero’s name printed on its spine—albeit inside a pair of brackets. Until at least the fifteenth century, people believed the short treatise had been written by the great Roman orator himself, but modern scholars have long been doubtful. It made sense that Cicero would have been the book’s author, since he was not only a famous master of memory techniques—he delivered his legendary speeches before the Roman senate from memory—but also (definitively) the author of another work called De Oratore, which is where the story of Simonides and the banquet hall first appeared. That the story of Simonides, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek, would have its first written record in a book written four centuries afterward by a Roman reflects the fact that no memory treatises have survived from ancient Greece—though some must certainly have been written. Since Cicero’s recounting of the incident was written so much later than Simonides supposedly remembered the locations of the mangled bodies, nobody can say just how much of the story is myth. I’m willing to wager that quite a lot of it is mythical, but a marble tablet dating to 264 B.C.—two centuries before Cicero, but still two centuries after the fact—and unearthed in the seventeenth century describes Simonides as “the inventor of the system of memory aids.” Still, it’s hard to believe that a technique like the art of memory was invented by one person at one moment in time, in so perfectly poetic a manner. For all we know, Simonides was merely the art of memory’s codifier, or maybe just a particularly adept practitioner who got tagged as its inventor. In any case, Simonides was a real person, and a real poet—the first apparently to charge for his poems and also the first to have called poetry “vocal painting” and painting “silent poetry.” This is a particularly noteworthy turn of phrase for Simonides to have coined because the art of memory that he is credited with inventing is all about turning words into paintings in the mind.

100 less a test of memory than of creativity: The key thing is to compress as much information as possible into any single well-formed image. The Ad Herennium gives the example of a lawyer who needs to remember the basic facts of a case: “The prosecutor has said that the defendant killed a man by poison, has charged that the motive for the crime was an inheritance, and declared that there are many witnesses and accessories to this act.” To remember all this, “we shall picture the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know his person. If we do not know him, we shall yet take some one to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, and in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger a ram’s testicles.” The bizarre image would certainly be tough to forget, but it takes some decoding to figure out exactly what it is you’re supposed to be remembering. The cup is a mnemonic to remind us of the poison, the tablets are a reminder of the will, and the ram’s testicles are a double entendre, reminding us of the witnesses with a verbal pun on testes (testimony) and—since Roman purses were often made out of the scrotum of a ram—of the possibility of bribing them. Seriously.

100 “memory is marvelously excited by images of women”: Rossi, Logic and the Art of Memory, p. 22.


110 “ judgment, citizenship, and piety”: Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 11.

110 “worth a thousand in the stacks”: Draaisma, Metaphors of Memory, p. 38.

110 the principle language in which he wrote: Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 88.

125 “core of his educational equipment”: Havelock, Preface to Plato, p. 27.

125 Professional memorizers: My favorite story about professional memorizers is told by Seneca the Younger about a wealthy Roman aristocrat named Calvisius Sabinus, who gave up on trying to learn the great works by heart and instead hired a coterie of slaves to do it for him.

I never saw a man whose good fortune was a greater offence against propriety. His memory was so faulty that he would sometimes forget the name of Ulysses, or Achilles, or Priam . . . But nonetheless did he desire to appear learned. So he devised this shortcut to learning: he paid fabulous prices for slaves—one to know Homer by heart and another to know Hesiod; he also delegated a special slave to each of the nine lyric poets. You need not wonder that he paid high prices for these slaves . . . After collecting this retinue, he began to make life miserable for his guests; he would keep these fellows at the foot of his couch, and ask them from time to time for verses which he might repeat, and then frequently break down in the middle of a word ... Sabinus held to the opinion that what any member of his household knew, he himself also knew.

125 memorizing the Vedas with perfect fidelity: The Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, is over ten thousand verses long.

125 attached to poets as official memorizers: After the introduction of Islam, Arabic mnemonists became known as huffaz, or “holders” of the Koran and Hadith.

125 memorized the oral law on behalf of the Jewish community: For more on Jewish mnemonists, see Gandz, “The Robeh, or the Official Memorizer of the Palestinian Schools.”

126 gathering armies, heroic shields, challenges between rivals: Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 23, and Lord, The Singer of Tales, pp. 68-98.

126 that was about as far as his inquiry into the matter went: As it turns out, this radical argument was actually not new at all. In fact, it seems long ago to have been a widely accepted notion that was somehow forgotten. The first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “They say that even Homer did not leave his poetry in writing, but that it was transmitted by memory.” And according to a tradition repeated by Cicero, the first official redaction of Homer was ordered by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus in the sixth century B.C. As people’s connections to oral culture grew more distant over the centuries, the idea of literature without writing became a harder and harder notion to digest, and eventually just came to seem implausible.

127 “composed wholly without the aid of writing”: For more, see Ong, Orality and Literacy, which is a major source for this chapter.

129 “Word for word, and line for line”: As reported by Parry’s student Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales, p. 27.

130 before trying to see it as a series of images: Carruthers argues in a revised second edition of The Book of Memory that the memoria verborum has long been misunderstood by modern psychologists and scholars. It was not, in fact, an alternative to rote, verbatim memorization, she contends, and was never meant to be used for memorizing long stretches of text. Rather, she suggests, it was for recalling single words and phrases—perhaps as long as a line of verse—that one had trouble remembering accurately.

131 the quandary of how to see the unseeable: According to Pliny, it was Simonides who invented the art of memory but Metrodorus who perfected it. Cicero called the man “almost divine.”

132 balistarius: Alternatively, Bradwardine’s system allowed that you could reverse a syllable simply by imagining an image upside-down, so “ba-” could also just be an abbot hanging from the ceiling.

132 an abbot getting shot by a crossbow: Or an abbot having a conversation with another abbot who was hanging from the ceiling.

132 “mangles or caresses St. Dominic”: Carruthers, The Book of Memory, pp. 136-37.

132 depraved carnal affections: Yates, The Art of Memory, p. 277.


139 that we have any knowledge of it today: Manguel, A History of Reading, p. 60.

139 a time when writing was ascendant in Greece: In Socrates’ day, about 10 percent of the Greek world was literate.

140 “in material books to help the memory”: Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 8.

140 some stretching up to sixty feet: Fischer, A History of Writing, p. 128.

140 papyrus reeds imported from the Nile Delta: Papyrus, the literal bulrushes of the biblical “ark of bulrushes” that carried the baby Moses, was also called byblos, after the Phoenician port of Byblos where it was exported—hence the “Bible.” In the second century B.C., the Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, cut off papyrus exports in order to curtail the growth of a rival library at Pergamum in Asia Minor (the word “parchment”—derived from charta pergamena—is a tribute to Pergamum, where the material was used extensively). From then on, it became more common for books to be penned on stretched parchment or vellum (a final piece of ancient book etymology: vellum, which was often made from calfskin, shares the same root with “veal”), both of which lasted longer and were more transportable than papyrus.

140 how long to pause between sentences: He created the high point, ·, corresponding to the modern period, the low point, · , corresponding to the modern comma, and the middle point, · , a pause of intermediate length, which is probably closest to the modern semicolon. The middle point vanished in the Middle Ages. The question mark didn’t appear until the publication of Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia in 1587, and the exclamation mark was first used in the Catechism of Edward VI in 1553.

141 GREECE: Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind, p. 53. I’ve borrowed her idea of printing English in this manner to show how hard it is to read.

141 a phrase often repeated in medieval texts: For more on reading scriptio continua, see Manguel, A History of Reading, p. 47.

142 extremely difficult to sight-read: Indeed, much published modern Hebrew, like the kind you’d find in a newspaper in Tel Aviv, is written without vowels. Words generally have to be recognized as units, rather than sounded out as they are in English. This slows Hebrew readers down. Native Hebrew speakers who also read English can typically read English translations faster than their own native language, even though it takes about 40 percent more words to say the same thing in English as in Hebrew.

143 “The stuff he knows made him lick her”: Sounds that can be sliced up in different ways to yield different semantic meanings are known as oronyms. The “stuffy nose” comes from Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 160.

143 a giant and very curious step backward: Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind, p. 114.

143 ánagignósko: Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 30.

143 ten billion volumes: Man, Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World, p. 4.

143 would have been considered particularly well stocked: In 1290, the library at the Sorbonne, among the biggest in the world, held exactly 1,017 books—fewer titles than many readers of this book will devour in a lifetime.

144 hadn’t even been invented yet: For more on the history of the display of books, see Petroski, The Book on the Bookshelf, pp. 40-42.

144 still weighed more than ten pounds: Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text, p. 112.

144 around the same time that chapter divisions were introduced: The Comprehensive Concordance to the Holy Scriptures (1894), pp. 8-9.

144 reading the text all the way through: Draaisma, Metaphors of Memory, p. 34.

145 “pre- and post-index Middle Ages”: Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text, p. 103.

145 labyrinthine world of external memory: A point made by Draaisma in Metaphors of Memory.

146 “living concordance”: In the words of Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, p. 31.

146 how to memorize playing cards: Corsi, The Enchanted Loom, p. 21.

147 “the letter A”: Translation quoted from Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 114.

147 “intensive” to “extensive” reading: Darnton attributes this idea to Rolf Engelsing, who cites the transformation as happening as late as the eighteenth century. The Kiss of Lamourette, p. 165.

149 one of the most famous men in all of Europe: Yates’s assessment in The Art of Memory, p. 129.

149 round, seven-tiered edifice: Yates tried to reconstruct the blueprints for the theater in The Art of Memory.

150 “and all the things that are in the entire world”: Rossi, Logic and the Art of Memory, p. 74.

150 hundreds—perhaps thousands—of cards were drafted: Corsi, The Enchanted Loom, p. 23.

150 over the course of a week: Much of this information comes from Douglas Radcliff-Ulmstead (1972), “Giulio Camillo’s Emblems of Memory,” Yale French Studies 47, 47-56.

151 the apotheosis of an entire era’s ideas about memory: More recently, virtual reality gurus have come to see Camillo’s memory theater as the historical forerunner of their entire field—and have traced its influence all the way to the Internet (the ultimate universal memory palace) and the Apple and Windows operating systems, whose spatially arranged folders and icons are just a modern reworking of Camillo’s mnemonic principles. See Peter Matussek (2001), “The Renaissance of the Theater of Memory,” Janus 8 Paragrana 10, 66-70.

152 “riding a sea monster”: These translations are from Rowland, Giordano Bruno, pp. 123-24.

152 “a parrot on his head”: Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p.138.

153 nine pairs of cranial nerves: There are now twelve known pairs of cranial nerves.

153 almost a half million dollars: Fellows and Larrowe, Loisette Exposed, p. 217.

154 a memory course lasting several weeks: Walsh and Zlatic (1981), “Mark Twain and the Art of Memory,” American Literature 53, no. 2, 214-31.


164 Johann Winkelmann: The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz also wrote about a similar system in the seventeenth century, but it’s quite likely that the idea of making numbers more memorable by turning them into words was discovered much earlier. The Greeks had an acrophonic system, wherein the first letter of each numeral could be used to represent the number, so that, for example, P represented the number five, for penta. In Hebrew, each letter of the aleph bet corresponds to a number, a quirk that Kabbalists have used to seek out hidden numerical meanings in Scripture. Nobody knows whether these systems were ever used to memorize numbers, but it’s hard to imagine that some Mediterranean businessman who had to do mental accounting wouldn’t have stumbled onto such an obvious idea.

166 advance the sport of competitive memory by a quantum leap: Ed gave me the following example of his Millennium PAO system at work: “The number 115 is Psmith, the stylish character from the P. G. Wodehouse books (the P is silent, by the way, as in ’phthisis’ or ’ptarmigan’). His action is that he gives away an umbrella that doesn’t belong to him to a delicate young lady he sees stranded in a rainstorm. The number 614 is Bill Clinton, who smokes but does not inhale marijuana, and the number 227 is Kurt Gödel, the obsessive logician, who starved himself to death by accident because he was too busy doing formal logic. Now, I can combine these three numbers to form nine-digit numbers that have anecdotal coherence. For example, 115,614,227 becomes Psmith deigning to puff at—without going so far as to inhale—formal logic. Now this is quite understandable since logic is, after all, an activity unsuited to the true English gent. If you change the ordering of the numbers, you get a different anecdote. The number 614,227,115 becomes Bill Clinton mortally forgetting to eat because he’s too busy pinching umbrellas for pretty young girls. This image will interact with my pre-existing knowledge of Clinton’s life—seeing as how he has gotten into trouble before with the inappropriate handling of cylindrical objects for young ladies—and the chance activation of this association, and the glimmer of accompanying humor, serves to better the stability of the memory. See, each possible combination has its own dynamic feel and emotion, and very often, interestingly, this will be the first thing in recall to pop into one’s head, before the other details slowly shuffle into view. I might also mention that this works as an excellent idea-generator and constitutes sound afternoon entertainment.”

171 lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered: J. M. Deakin and S. Cobley (2003), “A Search for Deliberate Practice: An Examination of the Practice Environments in Figureskating and Volleyball,” in Expert Performance in Sports: Advances in Research on Sport Expertise (edited by J. L. Starkes and K. A. Ericsson).

172 trying to understand the expert’s thinking at each step: K. A. Ericsson, et al. (1993), “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100 no. 3, 363-406.

172 working through old games: N. Charness, R. Krampe, and U. Mayer (1996), “The Role of Practice and Coaching in Entrepreneurial Skill Domains: An International Comparison of Life-Span Chess Skill Acquisition,” in Ericsson, The Road to Excellence, pp. 51-80.

172 repeatedly flashed words 10 to 15 percent faster: Dvorak, Typewriting Behavior.

173 have a tendency to get less and less accurate over the years: C. A. Beam, E. F. Conant, and E. A. Sickles (2003), “Association of Volume and Volume-Independent Factors with Accuracy in Screening Mammogram Interpretation,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 95, 282-90.

174 now acquired by your average high school junior: Ericsson, The Road to Excellence, p. 31.


192 “no sensibilities, no soul”: Ravitch, Left Back, p. 21.

193 “mental discipline”: Ravitch, Left Back, p. 61.

203 inventory and invention: Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, p. 11.

208 a group of baseball fanatics: G. J. Spillich (1979), “Text Processing of Domain-Related Information for Individuals with High and Low Domain Knowledge,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 14, 506-22.

208 either a witch trial or a piece of correspondence: Frederick M. Hess, Still at Risk pp. 1-2.


215 meet up with Daniel: I e-mailed Daniel and asked if he’d be willing to meet with me. He wrote back, “I normally request a fee for interviews with the media.” After I explained to him why that would be impossible, he agreed to see me on the condition that I mention the Web site of his online tutoring company,

217 its own separate syndrome: Asperger’s occurs in about one in two hundred people, and synesthesia probably in about one in two thousand, but that may be an underestimate. Nobody knows if both conditions have ever existed in the same person before, but assuming they occur independently of each other, the laws of probability would suggest that one in 400,000 people should have both synesthesia and Asperger’s. That would be about 750 people in the United States alone.

219 legally changed in 2001: Daniel is fully open about having changed his name. He told me he didn’t like the sound of his old family name, Corney,

221 more than nine thousand books he has read at about ten seconds a page: It should be noted that this claim was never investigated in a peer-reviewed journal. I suspect this bit of hyperbole might not have held up to careful scrutiny.

226 it’s a skill that can be learned: Eventually my investigation of mental mathematics led me to a remarkable book called The Great Mental Calculators: The Psychology, Methods, and Lives of Calculating Prodigies Past and Present by a psychologist named Steven Smith. Smith dismisses the notion that there’s anything special about the brains of calculation prodigies, and insists that their abilities derive purely from obsessive interest. He compares calculation to juggling: “Any sufficiently diligent non-handicapped person can learn to juggle, but the skill is actually acquired only by a handful of highly motivated individuals.” George Packer Bidder, one of the most renowned human calculators of all time, even went so far as to express “a strong conviction, that mental arithmetic can be taught, as easily, if not even with greater facility, than ordinary arithmetic.”

230 would have been able to do as well: At UCSD, Ramachandran and his graduate students administered three other tests of Tammet’s synesthesia. Using Play-Doh, they asked him to create 3-D models of twenty of his number shapes. When they gave him a surprise retest twenty-four hours later, all of his shapes matched up. Then they hooked up an electrode to his fingers and flashed him the digits of pi—but with a few errant digits thrown in. They measured his galvanic skin response and noticed that it jumped dramatically when he confronted a digit that didn’t belong.

The UCSD researchers also administered the Stroop test, another assessment commonly used to verify synesthesia. First they gave Daniel three minutes to memorize a matrix of a hundred numbers. After five minutes, he was able to recall sixty-eight of those numbers, and three days later he still remembered them perfectly. Then they gave him three minutes to memorize a matrix of a hundred numbers in which the size of the numbers on the page corresponded to how Daniel described the numbers in his mind. Nines were printed larger than other numbers and sixes were printed smaller. In this case, he memorized fifty digits, and held onto all of them for three days. Finally, they gave him a test where the numbers were printed in incongruous sizes. Nines were printed small. Sixes were printed large. They wanted to see if it would throw Daniel off his game. Did it ever. Daniel was only able to remember sixteen numbers, and after three days, he could remember exactly zero of them. Ramachandran and his students put together a prepublication conference poster on Daniel titled “Does Synesthesia Contribute to Mathematical Savant Skills?” in which they refer to him by the pseudonym Arithmos. It includes a caveat: “As in all cases like this we need to consider the fact that Arithmos may be performing almost all of his ’mental feats’ via pure memorization.”

230 they didn’t find this: D. Bor, J. Bilington, and S. Baron-Cohen (2007), “Savant memory for digits in a case of synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome is related to hyperactivity in the lateral prefrontal cortex.” Neurocase 13, 311-319.