Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

When I saw a prominent ad in The New Yorker for the paperback edition of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin Press, 2011) I decided it might be worth a quick read. Not because I’m trying to improve my memory; it works about as well as it ever has-- good on names and words, rotten on numbers. (Put those laugh cards down!) I have no desire to learn how to memorize the sequence of cards in a shuffled deck, and, assuming that I don’t end up in jail somewhere in solitary confinement where being able to recall poetry might provide some solace, I’m happy to rely on external memory—my print or digital library.

Foer, a recent college grad still living at home, was a freelance journalist in search of a compelling story. He not only found his story, he lived it, going from having a run-of-the-mill memory to U.S. memory champion in the space of a year. Before you get too excited about your own prospects, consider this. Foer admits that “a few nights after the world championship, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as I was walking in the door to my parents’ house that I’d driven a car to dinner. I hadn’t just forgotten where I parked it. I’d forgotten I had it.”

Foer describes an ancient and still almost failsafe memory crutch, the memory palace with its vivid and often raunchy images, to help remember an ordered sequence of words and, tougher, numbers. He offers portraits of savants and amnesiacs. He dips lightly into the literature on the nature of memory. But that’s not where I want to go today. Instead, I’m interested in how he became the top U.S. mental athlete.

And that takes me to the OK plateau.

Before he started training for the memory competition Foer met with, and was tested by, Anders Ericsson, an expert on expertise, and his graduate students at their human performance lab on the outskirts of Tallahassee. Foer and Ericsson struck a deal, part of which was that Foer would give Ericsson the meticulous records of all his training, and Ericsson’s grad students would analyze that data in search of ways he could perform better.

A few months into his training Foer’s memory stopped improving; he was stuck in a rut. Ericsson suggested that he check out the literature on speed typing. Most people reach a point at which their typing skills stop progressing. Even though “we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, and many people sit behind a keyboard for at least several hours a day in essence practicing their typing,” they don’t keep getting better and better. They’re on auto pilot, pecking away on the OK plateau.

“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … 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.”

Practice, in brief, has to be deliberate. It has to be tracked and analyzed. Foer set up a spreadsheet to record how long he was practicing and any difficulties he was having. He made graphs of everything. And he tracked his scores in a journal.

Foer had two mentors—Ericsson (and his staff) and Ed, a twenty-four-year-old British memory champ. Ed set a practice schedule for Foer, complete with benchmarks he was supposed to meet along the way. And, Foer writes, “a computer program tested me and kept detailed records of my mistakes, so that we could analyze them later. I e-mailed my times to Ed every few days, and he would write back with suggestions about how I could improve.”

For inspiration, Ed sent him a quotation from Bruce Lee: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Foer writes, “I copied that thought onto a Post-it note and stuck it on my wall. Then I tore it down and memorized it.”

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