In 2005, unsuspecting freelance journalist Joshua Foer attended the United States Memory Championship to write a short, man-on-the-scene piece about the hyperintellectual “Super Bowl of savants.” Just one year later, Foer found himself standing on that same national tournament stage—this time holding a gold trophy and the title of 2006 U.S. Memory Champion.
Gamely accepting the challenge of British memory coach Ed Cooke, who insisted to Foer that any average Joe could win the championship with the proper conditioning, Foer dove headlong into 12 months of intensive brain training. In his 2011 book, Moonwalking With Einstein, the 29-year-old Yale grad chronicles his mind-bending journey to the upper echelons of mental athleticism, and skillfully interlays his tale with glimpses into the history and science of memory.
Foer, who’s now touring the U.S. to promote the book’s new paperback edition, will make a stop in the suburbs March 14 at the Highland Park Public Library. He stopped to talk to The A.V. Club about iPhone dependence, the U.S. card-memorizing speed record he held for a hot second, and the real-life persistence of memory.
The A.V. Club: Moonwalking With Einstein is about how you went from being a guy with an average memory to the United States memory champion in just one year. It’s been a year since the book came out, and six years since you won the championship—how is your daily life different now from what it was before 2006?
Joshua Foer: [Laughs.] Well, besides the fact that I’m speaking from a hotel room on a book tour? I’m guessing you mean something broader than that. You’re asking me how I’ve changed, right? The answer is not that much, in most respects. It’s neat, right, to be able to do some of these memory tricks, but they’re not exactly life-changing. It’s nice to be able to recite speeches from memory, but that’s something that only comes up pretty rarely.
AVC: You wrote in Moonwalking that you were someone who pretty frequently forgot where the car keys were, or forgot what day your girlfriend’s birthday was. Has that changed?
JF: I try to do better. But it’s a challenge, a constant challenge, to remember to remember. Basically, if there’s a punch line to all the research that I did, it’s that there really aren’t any shortcuts. The reason these sorts of memory tricks and memory techniques that I learned work is because they make you work. They work because they force a kind of attention and mindfulness and imagination that we don’t normally walk around exercising. And I really have tried to remind myself of that when I’m going through the world. “Josh, pay attention!” “Josh, figure out what in the thing that you’re experiencing or learning about is meaningful to you, is colorful, is significant.” “How do I make this memorable?” And that’s something that I don’t think can happen on autopilot. It’s something you have to walk around reminding yourself of, all the time.
AVC: In the book, there’s this very palpable, self-aware sense of “What I’m doing is very nerdy and bizarre!” How do you feel in 2012, looking back on what you accomplished?
JF: [Laughs.] You know, it’s funny. When you put it in a different frame of, like—I think there’s a period when I was doing all this research when I sort of was like, “Whoa. What am I doing with myself? This is bizarre!” And the process of writing the book was, like, kind of one of reframing and figuring out why I was doing what I was doing. So I think I’m much more generous with myself for having gotten involved in this experience from my present vantage point than I might have been when I was actually doing it.
AVC: It sounds like you’re prouder of it now than you were at the time.
JF: [Laughs.] Yeah. I think that’s right. I can look back on it now with some ironic distance and appreciate what I was up to.
AVC: There were a full five years between your win in 2006 and the book’s publication in 2011, so it seems like you didn’t step off the stage of the U.S. Memory Championships saying, “Well, time to start the book.” When did you know you wanted to write it?
JF: I thought I was writing something longer, actually—during that whole year of research leading up to that memory championship, I thought I was writing something about this strange sport of competitive memorizing, this kind of subculture of people who participate in these contests, and a window into the science of memory and the history of memory. What I didn’t realize was that I was going to be a character in this story. That I only realized when I won the contest, and that changed what I’d been thinking about doing. It would have been a very different book if that hadn’t happened. I don’t even know if it would have actually ended up being a book.
AVC: When did you realize that this needed to be a book, and that you needed to be a character? What was that moment like?
JF: The moment was basically the second I won that contest. I was up there onstage, and my reaction was, “Oh, shit. This radically changes what I had been thinking about doing.” Because I had done all of this reporting with the notion that I was telling the story about these other characters, but it was now obvious that I had to do something very different. A lot of the reporting I had already done was going to be thrown out the window. I had spent tons of time with a lot of these competitive memorizers, visiting them in their homes and thinking the story was about them—and there just wasn’t space to tell that many of their stories. Suddenly I had to be a character in the story. You go and you do reporting with kind of a game plan of where it might end up, and this totally screwed up my game plan. Obviously for the best, right? It would have been a different—I think the book wouldn’t have worked as well if I hadn’t won that contest.
AVC: Can you tell me about your writing process once you had revised your game plan?
JF: I sort of mapped out how I thought the story could be told, and then had to go back and rethink. I’d done a lot of reporting with a different game plan, so I had to go back and rethink how some of the stuff could be folded into a different narrative structure. That was a bit of a challenge. But then it was just a lot of sitting in coffee shops and libraries, trying to get stuff done, and then being distracted by other projects.
AVC: What other projects were you getting distracted by?
JF: Well, some magazine work. But I started a company called Atlas Obscura: Eye To The World’s Curious Places. It’s a website, and now several other things. I also organized a design competition called Sukkah City, which took place in New York. So I have a habit of getting kind of distracted by this stuff.
AVC: You’ve got a lot of projects.
JF: Yeah, I like projects a lot. And it’s hard—[Laughs.] Well, when you’ve got one really big project you’re supposed to be working on, it can be a nice distraction, but also a distraction.
AVC: Have you attended any of the memory championships since you won in 2006?
JF: Oh, yeah. In fact there’ll be one in just a couple weeks that I’ll be at. [That’s on Saturday, March 24 at Con Edison in New York City. —ed.] I go and I cheer them on and watch these people just totally destroy every record. I set a record for memorizing a deck of playing cards in a minute and 40 seconds, and these guys can do it now so much faster than that. Every year the sport gets better and better. The competitors get better and better. They use new techniques; they train harder. I wouldn’t have a chance of winning today if I entered the U.S. Memory Championship.
AVC: In the book, you compare the United States’ competitive-memory rivalry with Europe to an “arms race,” and later compare the American team at the world memory championships team to the Jamaican bobsled team at the Winter Olympics (laid-back and stylish, but ultimately behind the curve). What’s the current state of that arms race in 2012?
JF: We [the Americans] have this guy named Nelson Dellis, who won the contest last year. I suspect he’s the favorite to win it this year. And he is probably, like, the first American who can actually give the Europeans and Asians a run for their money. He’s a pretty impressive guy.
AVC: Asia wasn’t so heavily emphasized as a source of stiff competition in the book. Which Asian nations have emerged as memory competitors in the years since you won?
JF: The Chinese are now really into this, and are kind of a juggernaut in all things mnemonic—as they are kind of in all things in general these days. The Chinese, the Germans, and the Brits are sort of the three powerhouses.
AVC: So do you have any aspirations to get back in the memory game at any point?
JF: No, I hung up my cleats. This was a journalistic project, and I came into it with a whole bunch of questions that I feel like I adequately answered. And so now I’m kind of on to other stuff.
AVC: It’s clear that in Moonwalking With Einstein your sources became more than just sources to you—relationships developed, characters developed. Are you still in touch with any of the people you connected with during your year of memory training? Your coach Ed Cooke, or maybe British memory champ Ben Pridmore? The memory expert Tony Buzan, or the elusive quasi-savant Daniel?
JF: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I just saw Ed, like, a week and a half ago. We talk about once a month. I haven’t spoken to [the rest] recently, but I should probably put in a plug for Ed’s new project! It’s this website called Memrise, using the same sort of memory techniques that he taught me to develop an app to learn foreign language vocabulary. That’s how he’s involved now [with memory training]; he’s creating something for a much bigger audience that hopefully can help people.
AVC: You’ve said that Gutenberg and the printing press ushered in a whole memory-eschewing Western society with a dependence on “externalized memory” devices. Do you personally use “externalized memory” devices like Wikipedia or a smartphone?
JF: Oh, of course. Probably more than most people. We’re definitely all better off being able to store phone numbers in our iPhones. The question is—well, increasingly, we’re storing everything. And I think there are things, certain kinds of memories, that we don’t want to externalize. That we want to leave with the—well, we’ll just leave it at that.
AVC: Do you think we, as a society, should be counteracting that growing dependence on externalized memory?
JF: No. First of all, I think it’s increasingly difficult to participate in our culture without relying on this stuff. But I guess what I would hope is that people would walk around with some kind of awareness of the ways in which these sorts of technologies are not unalloyed goods. That we are changing, that we’re in the midst of a kind of profound change in how we use our minds, and how our minds relate to these externalized technologies. I think creating some space for ourselves where we’re not constantly plugged in is a good idea.
AVC: Do you do that?
JF: Yeah. There’s one day a week when I don’t use my cell phone or check my e-mail. It’s the Jewish Sabbath, though. [Laughs.] So it’s actually a very old idea. But one that I think has some value to it today. Probably more than ever.
AVC: What are you working on now? What’s your next project?
JF: Well, for the next month I’m on the paperback tour. I’m starting to work on another big project that I’m not really ready to talk about, because I’m not sure whether it’s an absolutely awful idea. But it is definitely totally different from the last book. But it’s also immersive, and probably going to take me a long time to fully report.
AVC: So you’re immersed.
JF: Working on it.
AVC: Last year on The Colbert Report, you showed Stephen Colbert the stars-and-stripes earmuffs and the black painted blinder goggles you wore to maximize your concentration when you were training. Where are those now?
JF: [Laughs.] I keep them near my desk. Just as a reminder of this funny experience that I had.
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