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Moonwalking With Einstein

The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Joshua Foer

Memory coach taught him to rem names by associating with a vivid image eg his name "I'd imagine you joshing me when we first met, outside the hall, and I'd imagine myself breaking into four pieces in response (Four/Foer). Show two groups people same photo - tell one group he's a baker; tell second group his name is Baker. Then a week later show groups photo again and ask for the related word - the baker gets recalled, but the name Baker does not. So to rem names you have to turn Bakers into bakers, or Reagans into ray-guns etc.

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Chicken sexing is a very well paid job, because male chickens are worthless and need to be culled before eat. But it is impossible to train someone by telling them what to look for. And you haven't got time to "look" because bird is so fragile that if you hold it with its bum open looking for the vital distinguishing marks for more than a couple of seconds, it's vent swells up so that it looks like a male whether it is or isn't.

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Yet the very best sexers can do 1700 birds an hour. There is no time for conscious reasoning. And they can't explain how they decide. The only way for a student to learn is to basically guess, and then have the master confirm or correct him. And he needs to look at at least 250,000 bums before he's even starting to get proficient. (What a lifetime of work to look forward to!)

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Chess masters seem to have astounding memories. They can memorize entire boards with just a glance. And they can remember whole games for years afterwards. But turns out that can only remember 'real' games - not random patterns of pieces. And their memory of anything outside of a chess game is no better than anyone else's. Chess isn't so much an intellectual pursuit, it's a matter of recognizing patterns quickly and identifying a promising move, based on the acquired knowledge from years of studying other chess games.

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Shows something important - we don't rem things in isolation, we rem them in context. We are all like the chicken sexers and chess players - we interpret the present in terms of what we've learned in the past.Our previous experiences shape not only how we see the world, but also the moves we make within it.

Monotony collapses time, novelty stretches it. When we are teenagers life is full of new experiences and we have vivid recollections of them. But as we get older, more and more events are repeats, so we don't store vivid memories of them. Much becomes automatic routine and we don't store any memory of them.

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Like everything else about our modern bodies and minds, our memory hasn't evolved to cope with our present environment. Our ancestors didn't need to rem phone numbers, or word-for-word instructions from our bosses, or lists of dates from history, or even the names of a number of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to rem was where to find food and resources, the way home, and which plants were edible and which ones poisonous.

So, we are good at rem images, terrible at rem lists of words or numbers.

To rem stuff, need to change it to images, which we are good at rem. Stick it in yr memory in such a colorful, exciting and different form that you can't possibly forget it. You have to pay attention. If you are setting up an image of a pickled onion located at end of yr drive, you must imagine the shape, color and taste of it, and make sure you picture yourself 'standing' at the end of the drive while you do it.

Because we see mundane commonplace things all the time, we don't rem them. If want to rem something, we have to make it vivid - so strange, pornographic, ridiculous, funny is good.

We have only recently switched from intensive to extensive reading. In past people had few books - a Bible and an almanac etc - which were read over and over, often aloud, in groups. A narrow range of literature became impressed in peoples' experience. But now we have a huge range of books which we read only once. We value quantity over quality.

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The Major System invented 1648 by Johann Winkelmann is a simple code which converts numbers to phonetic sounds.

The "OK plateau". Reach a stage where you're satisfied with where you've got to and don't care enough to put in time to get better. Two-fingered typing for example. We go through 3 stages of learning - 'cognitive stage' where we think hard about what we are doing and concentrate on trying to improve. Then the 'associative stage' where we make fewer errors and get better with practice. Finally the 'autonomous stage' - basically running on autopilot. When you want to get good at something, how you practice is more important than how long you practice. You have to constantly challenge yourself, and monitor your performance. For example, get touch typists to speed up by flashing words on screen about 10% faster than they can keep up with, forcing then to think about where they are making mistakes, and fix their technique.

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Surgeons get better with practice, mammographers get worse as get older. Surgeons get constant quick feedback on whether they are doing it right; mammographers only hear about any mistakes months later.

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Tony Buzan's mind-mapping. Author's opinion that it's the effort of establishing mental image that makes any memory system work. Teacher Raemon Matthews runs a history class in South Bronx high school. Has a "Talented Tenth" who learn every impt fact figure and date in the history textbook, and compete in memory contests for recreation. before their final exam, each student completes an intricately detailed 3-panel science-fair board of the entire history textbook with lines linking images and labels. A machine gun wearing running shoes is the arms race that swept Europe in early 20th century.

Story about Kim Peek, the guy who inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. He knows by heart, 9000 books, including all of Shakespeare. He went to a staging of Twelfth Night and got so upset when an actor manage to transpose two lines that they had to stop the play. He's no longer allowed to attend live drama.

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