Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Commonplace Entry: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

... memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics.  Only through memorizing, the thinking went , could ideas truly be incorporated into one's psyche and their values absorbed.  The techniques existed not just to memorize useless information like decks of playing cards, but also to etch into the brain foundational texts and ideas.
pg 10
 [Schools] pur vast amounts of information into students' heads, but don't teach them how to retain it.  Memorizing has gotten a bad rap as a mindless way of holding onto facts just long enough to pass the next exam.  But it's not memorization that's evil, he says; it's the tradition of boring rote-learning that ... has corrupted Western education.
pg 11-12

If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience.  When we die, our memories die with us.  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.

pg 19

...start my investigation with the classics.  In addition to the Ad Herennium, there  would be translated excerpts of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria and Cicero's De Oratore for me to read, followed by a collection of medieval writings on memory by Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Hugh of St. Victor, and Peter of Ravenna.

The techniques introduced in the Ad Herennium were widely practiced in the ancient world.  In fact, in his own writings on the art of memory, Cicero says that the techniques are so well known that he felt he didn't need to waste ink describing them in detail ... Once upon a time, every literate person was versed in the techniques ... Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.

pg 95 (bold mine)

... a trained memory wasn't just about gaining easy access to information; it was about strengthening one's personal ethics and becoming a more complete person.  A trained memory was the key to cultivating "judgement, citizenship, and piety."  What one memorized helped shape one's character.

pg 110


Memorizing poetry and prose is extraordinarily difficult, the author [of Rhetorica ad Herennium] willingly concedes.  But that's exactly the point.  He explains that learning texts is worth doing not because it's easy but because it's hard.  "I believe that they who wish to do easy things without trouble and toil mus previously have been trained in more difficult things," he writes. 

pg 111

"I don't use the word 'memory' in my class because it's a bad word in education," says [Raemon] Matthews.  "You make monkeys memorize, whereas education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it.  But you can't have higher-level learning --you can't analyze-- without retrieving information." And you can't retrieve information without putting the information in there in the first place.  The dichotomy between "learning" and "memorizing" is false, Matthews contends.  You can't learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can't memorize without learning. 

pg 195


This paradox --it takes knowledge to gain knowledge--  

pg 208


Of course, the goal of education is not merely to cram a bunch of facts into students' heads; it's to lead them to understand those facts.  ... But even if facts don't by themselves lead to understanding, you can't have understanding without facts.  And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more.  Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information.  The more it catches, the bigger it grows.  And the bigger it grows, the more it catches. 

pg 208-209


 ... memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition.  There's a feedback loop between the two.  The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered.  People who have more associationsto hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more.  The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world.  And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember. 

pg 209


  1. Great quotes - I've got the audiobook waiting for me, maybe I'll have to start it soon. :)

  2. Be cautious with the audio book. There are some portions where they discuss using, erm, less than family-friendly images to help remember something. It isn't there a lot, but it pops up from time to time.

  3. Hmmm...yeah I seem to remember something about that in the SCL talk. I listen to my audiobooks with headphones on, usually during quiet times/ evenings, but I'm wondering if they're images I'll want in my head...

    1. It talks about using explicit images generally not explicitly, if that makes sense. From time to time he'll refer to an image he made but it's passing and I don't feel like I picked them up too much. Then, again, reading and listening can be different.

  4. I think I'll have to read this book.


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