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Remember! Remember!

Journalist Joshua Foer explores the art of memory in his debut book “Moonwalking with Einstein”
Foer stands tall with his major award.
Image by Courtesy of the USA Memory Championships
Foer stands tall with his major award.

What: Joshua Foer

When: 7:30 p.m., today

Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

Why remember anymore? That is the quandary at the center of journalist Joshua FoerâÄôs debut nonfiction work âÄúMoonwalking with Einstein,âÄù a book that explores not only the intricacies of our inner minds but why this lost âÄúart of rememberingâÄù is a discipline to salvage in the age of infinite digital storage.

It is a story that is framed around FoerâÄôs personal experience within the community of memory champions âÄî an interest that started when Foer covered the 2005 USA Memory Championship for Slate Magazine. These international competitors have the capacity to memorize thousands of random digits or John MiltonâÄôs âÄúParadise LostâÄù verbatim. The most peculiar thing of all is the communityâÄôs insistence that the skill is not too hard to obtain. Everyone involved insists upon the fact that they possess average memories. The book also knocks down the proposition of photographic memorization.

âÄúThey trained themselves to perform these memory gymnastics, and I didnâÄôt believe it,âÄù Foer said. âÄúI was skeptical actually, and thatâÄôs what drew me.âÄù

It was a deep draw. FoerâÄôs crawling research led him down a rabbit hole of abstract cognitive research and eventually to a championship title at the 2006 USA Memory Championship where he took first place in âÄúspeed cards.âÄù He memorized a randomly shuffled 52-card deck in 1 minute, 42 seconds. The method behind such a skill is not the sort of blind recitation one would expect. He was thinking of girthy comedian Dom Delouise spitting on Albert Einstein the whole time âÄî literally.

It is a method called person-action-object. It associates a chain of numbers or words with specific images. A five may symbolize Dom Delouise in a certain act. It is a study of what sticks to the brain. As FoerâÄôs predecessors have taught him, the more absurd the better.

âÄúThe competition is essentially cooking up these crazy scenes in your mindâÄôs eye,âÄù he said. âÄúIf that wouldnâÄôt have been something so fun, I probably wouldnâÄôt have gotten into it as much as I did.âÄù

The book is scattered with these vibrant exercises in recollection. Foer spends significant time discussing techniques such as the memory palace, a familiar space that an individual fills with vivid information in his or her mind for later access. However, he also dives into a multitude of prior case studies of atypical individuals. Some are amnesiacs who can retain any detail for little more than a moment. Others are individuals who remain emotionally detached from the world as the result of their information-crammed craniums.

âÄúI dove into the scientific literature,âÄù Foer said. âÄúI came to this with a whole bunch of questions because one of the first things I realized was that I had no idea how my memory worked.âÄù

It is ultimately an art of abstraction. Foer analogizes memoryâÄôs place in the brain with an aerial view of a city: There are the certain recognizable parts and places but no cohesive understanding of where the individual thoughts or people go.

It may also be the reason that such skills have shown little improvement for the little things in life. Foer still forgets why he opens the refrigerator and still hits his head at the low ceiling point of his parentsâÄô house.

âÄúThere arenâÄôt that many opportunities to use them in everyday life, but itâÄôs the principle of it,âÄù he said. âÄúYou can be the kind of person who goes through life just throwing your keys anywhere, but thatâÄôs a recipe for living pretty forgetfully.âÄù

Foer, who is currently touring to promote the book, has lost a bit of his skills since his heyday. While many may still expect party tricks at readings, it is a talent that has dimmed.

âÄúItâÄôs funny because since hanging up my cleats, I havenâÄôt kept up with the level of practice that I need to impress anyone,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm a little bit out of shape.âÄù

Guests have popped in here and there. Current U.S. memory champion Nelson Dellis made a stop one of his East Coast readings. Ed Cooke, FoerâÄôs de facto memory coach and one of the most entertaining figures in the book, has also made a few visits. While this art is a daunting one to uptake, it does reiterate that emphasis on the lazy attitudes in the days of terabyte storage.

âÄúThe thing I came away with is being the kind of person who remembers to remember,âÄù he said.

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