Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘brain’

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2015

by Joshua Foer (Penguin 2011; ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2)

Reading this book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know (always a good thing!). Chief among these is perhaps the fact that before people wrote things down, printed them in books, and saved them in digital format, they did not just naturally have better memories than we do; they learned and practiced techniques that enabled them to remember better. These techniques have mostly been lost to us (blame Gutenberg), but have been revived by a small group of memory experts who practice memorizing things like random numbers, poetry, and the order of cards in a deck, and compete among themselves. These techniques include things like the “person-action-object” system, or PAO, in which the memorizer commits to memory a set of images corresponding to two-digit numbers; for example, Pele kicking a soccer ball. This allows him (most of them seem to be male) to generate a memorable image for each six-digit number (Hillary Clinton talking to a soccer ball). It’s vital that the number be visualizable and unusual (thus memorable). Using this system, memory buffs (some are called “grand masters”) can, with practice, learn to remember any number from 0 to 999,999. (Why you would want to do this is another question.) The point is, there are tricks to remembering stuff, and they can be learned and practiced.

(Another interesting thing I did not know is that the human brain is very good at spatial memory and quite poor at remembering things like phone numbers, passwords, historical dates, and instructions; this is why memory champs employ “memory palaces” (mental images of places they know very well) in which to position their images so as to retrieve them in order without forgetting any.)

Joshua Foer begins with attending the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a science reporter, and he eventually devotes a year to learning and practicing memory techniques so that he can compete in the next championship (I will not divulge the outcome!). Along the way, he digests a lot of information about memory, learning, intelligence, education, history, chick sexing, savants, and more, and passes it on to his readers, making for a fascinating read.

We generally assume that the invention of the printing press, and indeed, the invention of writing itself, has been a good thing; Foer points out that all those external memory devices have their cost. In one of my favorite sections, he quotes Plato quoting Socrates quoting the Egyptian king Thamus (in Phaedra), to whose people the god Theuth offers a writing system which will improve the people’s memories. Thamus declines, saying, If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men. (pg 138) Which is pretty much what happened. Foer observes later that progressive education has made school more interesting and pleasant for children, but in so doing it has left us without the shared memories that enable us to “partake of a shared culture’. He continues, The people whose intellects I most admire always seen to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory, . . . but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. . . . 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. . . . 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 about it. (pgs 208-209)  That is certainly true.

However, after all that practice, Foer points out that although he could memorize certain kinds of things (generally ordered lists of something) much better than he had been able to previously, he did not remember other kinds of things (like where he had parked his car, or even a series of colors) any better than he had better.  And he very quickly returned to the practice of using external memory aids (post-it notes, to-do lists, cell phone address books) after his year on the memory circuit. But he also believes that a bigger benefit of that year’s training has to do with being mindful and learning to notice things. What I had really trained my brain to do, he writes at the end, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you notice.  (pg 268) This brought to mind something someone said on a TV show about forgetfulness that I once saw: it isn’t so much that we forget stuff, but that we never bother to remember it in the first place. It never makes it into our long-term memory.

I could not help remembering, as I read the book, that the reason I started my reading blog, back in 2006, was because I forgot what I had read so quickly after I read it. Apparently, I am not alone in this, in a world in which quantity (how much you read) is more valued than quality (how well you understand and remember what you have read). There is much to be said for questioning our assumptions about reading, understanding, knowing, and remembering.

P.S. Yes, Joshua Foer is Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother. I googled it.

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The Mind’s Eye

Posted by nliakos on March 30, 2013

by Oliver Sacks (Knopf, 2010)

Oliver Sacks doesn’t disappoint. I love his writing and try to read all his books, but somehow, I missed this one three years ago.

Most of the seven pieces that make up this book deal with vision in some way, such as what can go wrong with it (suddenly losing the ability to read, for example, or being unable to recognize faces) and how our brains react to its loss.  “Sight Reading” is about on alexia (inability to read) and alexia sine agraphia (inability to read without a corresponding inability to write). This can happen suddenly or gradually. The piece focuses on Lilian Kallir, a 67-year-old pianist who lost not only her ability to read books but also her ability to read music. Still, she managed to continue to teach at a music college and was able to learn and perform music from memory.

“Recalled to Life” recounts the story of a woman who suffered a hemorrhage in the brain which resulted in a loss of speech (aphasia). Although she did not regain her speech, Patricia H. learned to compensate for its loss in a variety of ways, eventually leading a full and joyful life after her hemorrhage.

“A Man of Letters” is about alexia; it describes how Howard Engel, creator of the detective Benny Cooperman, managed to resume his writing career despite his complete inability to read anything.

“Face-Blind,” perhaps my favorite piece in the book, is about prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces)and its frequently co-morbid condition, topographical agnosia (inability to get around without getting lost). Oliver Sacks himself suffers from these conditions, so his descriptions are particularly empathetic. He tells several funny anecdotes about his problems with faces and places. The ability to distinguish faces and recognize places are apparently governed by a part of the brain called the “fusiform gyrus” (or the “fusiform face area”). This essay is full of interesting factoids, such as why all Asians (or Africans, or white people…) look alike to someone from a different culture (by three months, human infants are already narrowing their idea of faces to those they see most often, which raises the question: if American babies are exposed from birth to all kinds of faces, will they be able to differentiate the faces of all kinds of people when they grow up?).

“Stereo Sue” deals with stereopsis, or stereo vision. This is something I had always assumed one has, or doesn’t have, but I learned that some people (Sacks among them) have an unusually intense form of stereoscopy; that is, they perceive the world more clearly as being three-dimensional than do the rest of us. Other people, because of eye problems or the loss of sight in one eye, lack this ability to see in three dimensions; to them, the world seems flat. We read about the case of Sue Barry, a neurologist, who spent the first 40 years of her life without the benefit of stereo vision but was able to develop it in her late forties, thanks to vision therapy. She found her life changed by her new ability.

In “Stereo Sue,” Sacks describes his own acute stereo vision and his lifelong interest in stereoscopy.  (He actually belongs to the new York Stereoscopic Society! Who knew there was such a thing?) So the reader can feel his dismay when in “Persistence of Vision,” he describes a frightening brush with a melanoma in the eye which ultimately robs him of binocular vision. Much of this piece consists of the diary that he kept during the period of his diagnosis, treatment, and (partial) recovery. As with his earlier book, A Leg to Stand On, his frank treatment of his own experience makes very compelling reading.

The final essay, “The Mind’s Eye,” deals with blindness and how people respond to their loss of sight.  Sacks tells how the brain sometimes responds to the loss of external visual stimuli by ramping up the internal ones. Some blind people develop the ability to function almost as if they were sighted, relying on their other senses to navigate through the world with confidence. He tells about one blind man who fixed his roof by himself, another who fought in the French Resistance, another who learned to play sports and chess by using clicking noises, like a dolphin.

While some parts of the book were a bit too technical for me to understand completely, I found it a fascinating read.

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Embracing the Wide Sky

Posted by nliakos on May 27, 2011

by Daniel Tammet, 2009

In this sequel to Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet shares research findings about the human brain and muses about how his brain and that of other savants might be similar to, or different from, an ordinary brain.  The book was interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but I liked it less than Born on a Blue Day because it’s less about Tammet and more about brains. I’m very interested in brains, but I already knew some of what is in this book (not all, certainly!), about learning language and why it doesn’t make sense to play the lottery; still, the chapters on math (“The Number Instinct” and “Thinking by Numbers” were new to me and interesting, although I couldn’t always follow the explanations!


Listen to Daniel Tammet talk about this book at

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