There’s a lot that actor Aamir Khan, educationists, academicians and parents of schoolchildren find reprehensible about India’s education system. Apart from the ossified curriculum, a disproportionate student-teacher ratio and hackneyed teaching aids, they are in unequivocal agreement that the biggest scourge of them all is the inordinate emphasis on cramming, or rote learning.
The necessity of memorizing multiplication tables till 20, mugging up the elements of the periodic table and reproducing the sanguineous twists of the frog’s circulatory system on paper, kills the average high-schooler’s appetite for scientific enquiry, it is said, and therefore nothing stimulating can ever come out of this competitive memorizing that passes for learning in our schools.
US-based science journalist Joshua Foer’s first book, Moonwalking with Einstein, begs to differ. It is the story of his zestful and ultimately successful entry into the kooky, relatively obscure art of competitive memorizing. Here the ultimate prize isn’t a seat at medical school but a shot at the USA Memory Championship, where memorizing a well-shuffled pack of cards in under a minute, learning by heart the names and faces of at least 100 people in a fixed sequence are mere qualifying prerequisites.
Learn by heart: A contestant at the USA Memory Championship in March. Don Emmert/AFP
However, instead of a self-indulgent gonzo narrative of his quest (into which similar works of participatory journalism often lapse), Foer weaves an engaging history of mankind’s obsession with memory, with a lithe autobiographical account of how he, of “average memory”, went on to win the championship.
While it’s generally held that some people have good memories and the rest have sieves, Foer assiduously skims several disciplines—cognitive psychology, the ancient and medieval history of Europe, American school education history, synesthesia and the self-help book industry—to argue that being able to commit random phone lists to memory is more a matter of artful training than being blessed (or cursed, as some characters in his narrative exemplify) with innate ability.
The core principle underlying all these techniques is transposing numbers and words into visual images and placing them in familiar mental geographies. To memorize a pack of cards, for instance, mental athletes (as competitors in memory championships are called) create vivid mnemonics for every card. The king of hearts for Foer was Michael Jackson moonwalking with a white glove, the king of clubs was John Goodman eating a hamburger and the king of diamonds was Bill Clinton smoking a cigar. Memorizing all three cards in that order would mean creating an image of Michael Jackson eating a cigar.
Author Joshua Foer. Salman Haaretz/Penguin Group/Bloomberg
Each of these images is further “stored” or located in a room or location such as the house he grew up in. Thus, remembering a sequence is akin to navigating a bungalow with many rooms. The more incongruous and lurid an image, the better it sticks, he says.
So entrenched were these techniques in classical educational systems that historian Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History—among the world’s first travel books—says that “… King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army, Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people, Seneca the Elder could repeat two thousand names in the order they’d been given to him…”
How did we get to today, where memorizing textbooks to get through examinations is considered dehumanizing? Books and the continuing externalization of memory, answers Foer. Our hard drives, textbooks, photographs, blogs and Wikipedia accumulate and digitally preserve our knowledge, opinion and things we know and render them at our disposal as soon as the appropriate search terms are googled in. If devoting enormous energy and time chugging factoids into our heads when they can be summoned at a fraction of the effort does seem like a big waste, why memorize at all?
In answering this Foer recounts interviews with medical curios such as EP, then an 84-year-old amnesiac, now deceased—so grievously afflicted that he could not remember anything said or done beyond a few seconds. Another interviewee and EP’s antithesis is Kim Peek, a savant and autistic (and inspiration for the Dustin Hoffman-starrer Rainman) who’s memorized close to 9,000 books line-for-line, but barely understands a fraction of them.
Moonwalking with Einstein: Penguin India, 307 pages, Rs 550.
What we pick and choose from the infinite sensations that bombard us is what defines us. Sure, our brain has a tremendous capacity to absorb a kaleidoscopic breadth of trivia and sensations. But it is in filtering out most of these and mixing and matching what we retain, that intelligence comes into play.
Then again, if what we remember is who we are, shouldn’t our blogs, our lovingly accumulated book collections and our iPhones—which “remember” the dates, contact details, messages of our personal networks—count as valid extensions of our brain and consciousness? In choosing what we remember, how much—and at what peril—are we editing out information that matters? We may be collectively more knowledgeable than our ancestors, but are we individually smarter? With the increasing externalization of knowledge, what shifts are under way in the way our brain processes information?
Several of these intriguing questions are only partially addressed. Ultimately, this is a work of narrative fiction, not a scholarly treatise on evolutionary or cognitive psychology and—to underline—the closing chapters detail the Memory Championship, the formidable competition, Foer’s eccentric training crew and his eventual triumph. All this, compared with the philosophical meat in the middle of the book, is at best amusing. That said, as a pleasant introduction to the mysteries of the brain and how neuroscience tries to answer what makes us who we are, few books offer as much thoughtful entertainment as this one.