Update March 26th 2018 – I made a more explanatory vlog about this book today!

So this book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer is probably one of the most popular pop-sci books in all of time… It changed my life and many others on top of just being an outstanding book. You can buy it here or find it in most libraries. Here are my unedited thoughts, highlights and commentary about the book.

Well-written and funny introduction to the world of memory and competing in it. This book is what started a lot of younger people competing (including me). For an in-depth review, read my buddy Billy Gates’ post about it.

“Anyone could do it really” – Ben Pridmore says this, but does he know just how right he is?

“normal is not necessarily natural”

Remember to say this, especially when someone is justifying some shitty behavior.

If you spent that much time, you’d do very well. If you wanted to enter the world championship, you’d need to spend three to four hours a day for the final six months leading up to the championship. It gets heavy.”

Some people do put in that effort, others not, depends on your skill, style, goals and life outside of competition.

In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.

Well that’s very meta.

«  It occurred to me that this was a kind of manufactured synesthesia. »

Best way of putting it.

The secret to success in the names-and-faces event—and to remembering people’s names in the real world—is simply to turn Bakers into bakers—or Foers into fours. Or Reagans into ray guns. It’s a simple trick, but highly effective.

Hmm. No. For some people perhaps but for Katie Kermode, Jan-Hendrik Büscher and I – all three of us very naturally good at names & faces – don’t use this technique so much. Sometimes it works, other times it can be catastrophic and time-consuming. It seems our memorizing style is much harder to describe in words, but that we all have a sense of “just memorizing it”. This next quote might have something to do with it.

Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways. They can overcome one of the brain’s most fundamental constraints: the magical number seven.

I’d like to think that those of us good at remembering names and faces naturally have been conditioned to pay keen attention to people. At least it is so in my case.

As for the second-part of the quote, there’s no such thing as a high-performing memory athlete who can only memorize seven 2-digit numbers.

There is something about mastering a specific field that breeds a better memory for the details of that field.

Being good at memorizing binary digits doesn’t mean your overall memory is awesome.

If you spoke Swahili and not English, the nursery rhyme would remain a jumble of letters. In other words, when it comes to chunking—and to our memory more broadly—what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.

Know more things to know more things, ya know? This ties into ideas of scaffolding, construction theory etc.

In most cases, the skill is not the result of conscious reasoning, but pattern recognition. It is a feat of perception and memory, not analysis.

A lot of things are like this at the “expert” level.

“I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer […] The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?

[…] By remembering more. By providing my life with more chronological landmarks. By making myself more aware of time’s passage. The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly.” – Ed Cooke

Hmm, I started training for memory sports on April 1st 2014 and had my first competition the following week because I couldn’t bare to wait and my perception of time passing has always been slow. This might have to do with the fact that I was 20 at the time and I’m 22 now and being younger usually makes time go slower.

It’s an interesting idea, one that I held onto for a while, but last year when I was packing as much experience as possible into my life it mostly felt like I was getting biologically older and emotionally jaded. When we’re in flow state however, time both goes faster and slower. Personally, it’s like being in a place of no time nor space. That’s a more amazing state to reach than trying to make the year not feel like it flew by.

At some point he stopped being able to remember what happened even the day before. His experience in isolation had turned him into EP. As time began to blur, he became effectively amnesic. Soon, his sleep patterns disintegrated. Some days he’d stay awake for thirty-six straight hours, other days for eight—without being able to tell the difference. When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal. He thought only a month had gone by. His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two.

Being alone makes you crazy and lose your sense of not only time but when to sleep, what to eat etc. Solitary confinement is a horrible thing that we should get rid of, but the self-inflicted wound of not hanging out with people can be equally bad if not worse since it’s something we do to ourselves.

That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Hmm. No. I think the point is we need to grow as humans, feel a sense of belonging with others and feel that we are the captains of our souls.

If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human” – Ed Cooke

I don’t know how I feel about this quote. Seeing people remember less and repeat themselves more does feel kind of robotic… Seeing loved ones start looping à la Westworld hosts is difficult and makes it hard to feel like they’re really themselves the way they used to be. 

Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?

This phenomenon of unconscious remembering, known as priming, is evidence of an entire shadowy underworld of memories lurking beneath the surface of our conscious reckoning.

A.k.a. things you know that you know and things you don’t. Last month, an old white guy on the subway in Beijing started humming a melody that made me cry.  It was the first song in French I had ever learned, when I was eight and I still knew all the words. Beautiful priming.

Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

While the hippocampus is involved in their initial formation, their contents are ultimately held in long-term storage in the neocortex. Over time, as they are revisited and reinforced, memories are consolidated in a way that makes them impervious to erasure.

Sleep helps this shift from medium to long-term. I think a huge part of me being able to remember more is that I’ve always loved sleeping and prioritized it. Trying my best to make a lifestyle where I can sleep whenever I want for as many days of the year as possible, even skipping morning classes as a kid because I just wanted to sleep. We as a society don’t understand how important sleep is for memory, for being nice to each other and ourselves and how much we might lose both in measurable and immeasurable things because of the sleep debt we have as a global society.

“lack of sleep is the enemy of memory.”

The most basic principle of all mnemonics: “elaborative encoding.”

When you know the basics deeply, you don’t have to be so elaborative.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

If only I had known this in high school when I had a hard time making most classes fun.

“Lukas woke up at noon, learned everything for the exam in a memory blitz, and then passed it. […] Lukas has figured out that effort is a rather vulgar exercise.”

How I passed most of my exams at university after finding this book. Should be noted that I always passed the exams and only sometimes got a good grade.

The World Memory Championship is less a test of memory than of creativity.

And of spaced repetition, keeping your cool, having good memory journeys, doing enough aerobic exercises, not eating local food that your belly’s not used to, knowing what earmuffs to wear, controlling your jet-lag, not getting psyched out by mean mean boys, praying to your ovaries that your period won’t come (even though it syncs up with competition days, always) and so much more.

“When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.” – Ed Cooke

This might be true for Ed and others, the general rule is something that you find interesting when you’re first learning the techniques – as you become better and better you can have more mundane things like a cat, just a cat sitting there in your memory palace. Nothing vulgar, violent, funny or interesting has to happen when you’re really good.

“This cold air is good for the brain” – Ed Cooke.

Or it just makes your brain think of how cold it is.

One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.

stop drinking […] get in shape […] « daily glasses of cod liver oil or takes omega-3 supplements.

Some do, some don’t.

Ben had been working on a book called “How to Be Clever,” which teaches readers how to calculate the day of the week for any date in history, how to memorize a deck of cards, and how to scam an IQ test. The book is about making people think you’re brainy without actually increasing your intelligence.

None of it is that impressive once you know the trick.

““Extraneous stimuli,” as Gunther (Karsten) calls them, are the memorizer’s bête noir.”

True, unless you’ve practiced performing in noisy environments, you don’t get as easily distracted.

« memoria rerum and memoria verborum, memory for things and memory for words. When approaching a text or a speech, one could try to remember the gist, or one could try to remember verbatim. The Roman rhetoric teacher Quintilian looked down on memoria verborum on the grounds that creating such a vast number of images was not only inefficient, since it would require a gargantuan memory palace, but also unstable. If your memory for a speech hinged on knowing every word, then not only did you have a lot more to remember, but if you forgot a single word, you could end up trapped in a room of your memory palace staring at a blank wall, lost and unable to move on.

I heard a guy talking about how he made a memory palace for the grammar of a foreign language and I just felt like telling him “baby, you don’t know anything about how hard that’ll make it for you to actually speak this language.” Sometimes, using a memory palace is stupid. Learn to get a sense of when that is.

« The brain is a costly organ. Though it accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s mass, it uses up a fifth of all the oxygen we breathe, and it’s where a quarter of all our glucose gets burned. »

Which is why I’m not fat even though I eat insane amounts of glucose. Because I think so much. Or something.

«  The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized. »

Not necessarily true if you look into some surveys that dr. Boris Nikolai Konrad did with memory athletes. Most of us like thinking about stories and the reasons for why things happen.

Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory.

If you can turn a set of words into a jingle, they can become exceedingly difficult to knock out of your head. […] Song is the ultimate structuring device for language

if you ask someone to memorize a sentence like “Pick up a pen,” it’s much more likely to stick if the person literally picks up a pen as they’re learning the sentence.

They invested in the acquisition of memories the same way we invest in the acquisition of things.

If only we could be more focused on being nice to each other instead of this constant acquisition of things/memories hunt.

« a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds »

Something you only do at the beginning of learning your images.

nobody wins any international memory competitions with the Major System.

Jonas did, multiple times…

« it takes a lot of remembering just to be able to remember. »


« Each year someone—usually it’s a competitor who is temporarily underemployed or a student with an unstructured summer vacation—comes up with an ever more elaborate technique for remembering more stuff more quickly, forcing the rest of the field to play catch-up. »

Time on your hands helps.

« Ben spent dozens of hours dreaming up a unique image for every two-card combination »

That’s the hard part maybe, the memorizing is when it gets fun!

« Every mental athlete has a weakness, an Achilles heel. »

Does not necessarily have to do with any discipline either. It could also be laziness, no discipline for training or being emotionally unstable during competitions.

During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot.

A.k.a. a variant of the four stages of knowledge and jumping back to the third stage to get better when you’re on autopilot.

focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.

Ask current World and US Memory Champion Alex Mullen about this…

« The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing. One way to do that is to put yourself in the mind of someone far more competent at the task you’re trying to master, and try to figure out how that person works through problems. »

« At first they weren’t able to keep up, but over a period of days they figured out the obstacles that were slowing them down, and overcame them, and then continued to type at the faster speed »

“Ericsson suggested I try the same thing with cards. He told me to find a metronome and to try to memorize a card every time it clicked. Once I figured out my limits, he instructed me to set the metronome 10 to 20 percent faster than that and keep trying at the quicker pace until I stopped making mistakes. Whenever I came across a card that was particularly troublesome, I was supposed to make a note of it, and see if I could figure out why it was giving me problems”

Once a benchmark is deemed breakable, it usually doesn’t take long before someone breaks it.

4-minute mile etc.

This, more than anything, is what differentiates the top memorizers from the second tier: They approach memorization like a science.

Or like a game, it’s up to you.

You have to analyze what you’re doing.

And figure out when you’re having the most optimal level of fun, when you’re having too much fun and get engrossed in the images/stories you’re not going fast enough, when you’re bored you’re also not going fast enough.

the art of memory is learning how little of an image you need to see to make it memorable, Just focus on one salient element of whatever it is you’re trying to visualize.

” you’ve got to work on the assumption that you’re going to do better in practice than you’ll do in the tournament. […] You always do at least twenty percent worse under the lights.”

Sometimes you do better at a competition.

6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap

We’ve all been there.

I realized I’d become fixated on the other competitors. With the help of detailed statistics kept on the memory circuit’s stats server, I had made myself familiar with each of their strengths and weaknesses, and I’d measured my own scores against theirs with compulsive regularity.

Some should do this, others should stay as far away from the statistics as possible, depending on your personality.

You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning.

the more you know, the easier it is to know more.

Unless you’re at that weird stage where the knowledge of how much you don’t know scares you into inaction, like a reverse Dunning-Kruger.

« If you want my opinion, he simply realized he’d never be number one as a mental athlete. »

I can’t write about this person or chapter. For this chapter alone you need to read the book because it is so well-written and awesome.

anyone can teach themselves how to multiply three-digit numbers in their head. It is by no means easy—believe me, I tried—but it’s a skill that can be learned.

our immediate perception of the world is powerfully shaped by memory.

the jokes I sometimes made at the expense of this “kooky contest” concealed the truth that I was dead set on victory.

I make the same jokes, but I am as serious about it as Mr. Foer.

“Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”

And people is the first thing I take notice of anywhere on earth.

“Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.”

“It would mean a lot more practice, and that’s time which you very likely can invest in a much better way.”

And this is the question some of us ask ourselves all the time, is it still fun? Is there a next thing? Maybe I’m done with this?

Buy it here if you want to help support the blog.



  1. Tracy Miller Reply

    Great comments! I enjoyed this book very much when I first read it as well.

    • yanjaa Reply

      Thanks! It’s SO WELL-WRITTEN! Joshua Foer could write a book about the magic of navel fuzz and I would read it in an afternoon!

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