The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer
Memory is an elusive concept. It seems like something that comes and goes with age, and it is often assumed that some people have a better one than others. In reality it’s an art, an ability that you can exercise and improve just like anything else. The first half of the book focuses much more on the history of memorization and its benefits. The second half takes a drastic shift as the author himself gets pulled into the world of memory competitions. He decides to train and compete and he brings the reader along for the ride as he learns the tricks of the trade.
The concept of memory palaces was one I've heard of before but it was interesting to hear it described in more detail. To remember a long list you visualize each item in a specific location in a specific home. For example, if you have a grocery list you can place that in your childhood home. Say a jar of mayonnaise goes at the end of the driveway, a carton of eggs goes at the front door, etc. Then you “walk” through the house in your mind you see each of the items you visualized in the specific spot.
I never realized how critical memory was before the printing presses existed. People who had access to books could only refer back to what they’d memorized. Books were rare, as was the ability to read. Sharing stories through oral tradition was much more common that reading actual books.
“Creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
There’s one section where Foer discusses the danger of routine making our lives literally seem shorter. When we are constantly creating new memories our life becomes more memorable. Going on a big trip, learning something new, having dinner with friends, each of those things becomes a specific moment in time that we remember. Whereas going home from work, watching TV every night and eating almost the same thing makes a whole week blend together. I loved this section because I try to constantly do new things in my life. I travel often, try new restaurants, see plays and visit museum exhibits, even being a tourist in my own city and spending time with friends fits in this category. To me, it seems like time still goes by quickly, but it’s packed to the brim! I can think of what happened last week in specific memories instead of seeing it blur together. I thought it was fascinating that actual studies have been done on this. And the conclusion was, you can live the healthiest life in the world, but if it’s only full of repetitive routines than it will still seem short.
BOTTOM LINE: I was fascinated by the whole book. Foer’s writing style is perfectly suited to make nonfiction content feel like a page-turner. I look forward to whatever he writes next.
“Monotony collapses time, novelty unfolds it.”
“Of all the things one could be obsessive about collecting, memories of one’s own life don’t seem like the most unreasonable. There’s something even strangely rational about it.
Side note: I will say it was a bit ironic to read this one while having “pregnancy brain”. At no point in my life have I had a harder time remembering small things!