For mental athletes, the U.S.A. Memory Championship requires remembering 99 names and faces, a shuffled deck of cards, and various long lists of random numbers and words.
By imagining Dom DeLuise spitting on Einstein and kicking Pope Benedict XVI in the groin, among other things, Joshua Foer won the competition in 2006.
“Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” is Foer’s account of learning powerful techniques from the masters, as well as a larger exploration of how memory determines the shape of our lives.
We spoke at Bloomberg’s headquarters in Manhattan.
Lundborg: How did you train for the memory competition?
Foer: There were several different events with different sorts of training for each one. But a number revolve around this idea of the memory palace, which is an imagined edifice in your mind’s eye that you populate with things you want to remember.
Lundborg: Sex and jokes are the best mnemonic devices?
Foer: That’s old advice that goes back to the earliest things written about memory in ancient Rome.
If you want to make things memorable, you have to make them colorful. You have to make them weird. You have to make them big. You have to make them ugly. And sometimes it helps to make them raunchy.
Lundborg: You had to remember a list containing, among other things, a dry ice machine, hula hoops, a snorkel and cottage cheese, so you put Claudia Schiffer in a tub of cottage cheese?
Foer: Yes, Claudia Schiffer in a tub of cottage cheese is pretty unforgettable.
Lundborg: In the course of your research, you came across some strange things -- what led you to professional chicken sexers?
Foer: It’s an arcane form of expertise based on memory. When you’re raising chicks for eggs, male chickens are useless. You want to get rid of them as quickly as possible, but it’s hard to distinguish between male and female chicks until they are four to six weeks old.
Eventually somebody figured out that you could actually look in their rear ends, and, from the constellation of bumps and protrusions, train yourself with thousands of hours to make this distinction.
Lundborg: You say chess is not simply a cognitive game, it’s also highly dependent on memory?
Foer: When a grandmaster at chess looks at a board, he’s seeing that board in the light of every board he’s played before and all of the games that he’s read about.
Almost every decision we make is informed by things that are knocking around in our skulls, in our experiences and the things that we’ve seen before.
Lundborg: How would this sort of skill apply to Wall Street? Don’t a lot of young guys without a lot of experience come and take Wall Street by storm?
Foer: Right, and then screw everything up. Maybe a few of them should go become chicken sexers. The world might be better off.
Lundborg: Can you go to Vegas, or use your new memory skills in other ways?
Foer: Card counting is a slightly different skill, though I’ve been told several of the people who compete on the world level are persona non grata in Vegas.
Lundborg: You got an advance of $1.2 million for the book. Were you surprised?
Lundborg: How is it changing your life?
Foer: It’s not.
Lundborg: The film rights have been sold to Columbia -- I wouldn’t have thought that watching someone in goggles and earmuffs memorize big lists of numbers was inherently dramatic.
Foer: I’ll be curious to see how they sex it up.
Lundborg: Who do you see playing yourself?
Foer: Dwayne Johnson. The Rock.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)