Joshua Foer was born in Washington, DC in 1982 and lives in New Haven, CT. His writing has appeared in The New YorkerNational Geographic, Esquire, Slate, Outside, the New York Times, and other publications.

Moonwalking with Einstein, an international best seller published in 33 languages, is his first book.

Josh is the co-founder of the online guide to the world’s wonders & curiosities, Atlas Obscura.

He is also the co-founder of the design competition Sukkah City.

 

Moonwalking with Einstein

 

About the Book

Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer's yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top "mental athletes." He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author's own mind, Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

 

Reviews

“His narrative is smart and funny and, like the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, it’s informed by a humanism that enables its author to place the mysteries of the brain within a larger philosophical and cultural context.”

Michiko Katutani, The New York Times
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“His passionate and deeply engrossing book…is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind… In the end, Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us that though brain science is a wild frontier and the mechanics of memory little understood, our minds are capable of epic achievements.”

Maria Arana, The Washington Post
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“It’s a terrific book: sometimes weird but mostly smart, funny and ultimately a lovely exploration of the ways that we preserve our lives and our world in the golden amber of human memory.”

Deborah Blum, New Scientist
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“Joshua Foer’s book…is both fun and reassuring. All it takes to have a better memory, he contends, are a few tricks and a good erotic imagination.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times
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“It’s delightful to travel with him on this unlikely journey, and his entertaining treatment of memory as both sport and science is spot on…Moonwalking with Einstein proves uplifting: It shows that with motivation, focus and a few clever tricks, our minds can do rather extraordinary things.”

Elizabeth Loftus, The Wall Street Journal
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“For one year, Foer tried to attain total recall, extracting secrets from the top researchers, the real Rain Man, and the world’s memory champs. He triumphed, both in his quest and in this lively account, which is, no exaggeration, unforgettable.”

Parade
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“[An] inspired and well-written debut book about not just memorization, but about what it means to be educated and the best way to become so, about expertise in general, and about the not-so-hidden “secrets” of acquiring skills.”

The Seattle Times
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“In recounting his year in training for the U. S. Memory Championship, journalist Foer delivers a rich history of memory.”

Discover Magazine
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“You have to love a writer who employs chick sexing to help explain human memory. Foer is a charmer, a crackling mind, a fresh wind. He approaches a complex topic with so much humanity, humor, and originality that you don’t realize how much you’re taking in and understanding. It’s kind of miraculous.”

Mary Roach, author of Packing For Mars, Bonk, Spook, and Stiff
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“Moonwalking With Einstein isn’t just a splendid overview of an essential aspect of our humanity-our memory; it is also a witty and engaging account of how Foer went from being a guy with an average memory to winning the U.S. Memory Championship.”

Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational
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“In this marvelous book, Joshua Foer invents a new genre of non-fiction. This is a work of science journalism wrapped around an adventure story, a bildungsroman fused to a vivid investigation of human memory. If you want to understand how we remember, and how we can all learn to remember better, then read this book.”

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist
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“Moonwalking with Einstein isn’t a how-to guide to remembering a name or where you put your keys. It’s a riveting exploration of humankind’s centuries- old obsession with memory, and one man’s improbable quest to master his own.”

Stefan Fatsis, author of A Few Seconds of Panic and Word Freak
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“I never thought much about whether I could improve my memory across a wider set of domains, but now I think I could, after reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by a young science writer, Joshua Foer. It’s absolutely phenomenal, one of the most interesting books I’ve read this summer.”

Bill Gates
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“I recently found myself helped inadvertently by reading ‘Moonwalking With Einstein,’ which centers on the science of remembering… Strangely, I discovered that simply reading about the methods used by memory champions helped me improve my own memory. Now at least I can remember where I left my glasses.”

Dan Brown
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Frequently Asked Questions

First, can you explain the title of your book, MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN?

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship–specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.

What are the U.S. Memory Championships? How did you become involved?

The U.S. Memory Championship is a rather bizarre contest held each spring in New York City, in which people get together to see who can remember the most names of strangers, the most lines of poetry, the most random digits. I went to the event as a science journalist, to cover what I assumed would be the Super Bowl of savants. But when I talked to the competitors, they told me something really interesting. They weren’t savants. And they didn’t have photographic memories. Rather, they’d trained their memories using ancient techniques. They said anyone could do it. I was skeptical. Frankly, I didn’t believe them. I said, well, if anyone can do it, could you teach me? A guy named Ed Cooke, who has one of the best trained memories in the world, took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about memory techniques. A year later I came back to the contest, this time to try and compete, as a sort of exercise in participatory journalism. I was curious simply to see how well I’d do, but I ended up winning the contest. That really wasn’t supposed to happen.

Can you explain the "OK Plateau"?

The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That’s because it’s become automatic. You’ve moved it to the back of your mind’s filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it’s possible, of course. But you’ve got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You’ve got to push yourself past where you’re comfortable. You have to watch yourself fail and learn from your mistakes. That’s the way to get better at anything. And it’s how I improved my memory.

What do you mean by saying there an "art" to memory?

The “art of memory” refers to a set of techniques that were invented in ancient Greece. These are the same techniques that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, and that medieval scholars used to memorize entire books. The “art” is in creating imagery in your mind that is so unusual, so colorful, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before that it’s unlikely to be forgotten. That’s why mnemonists like to say that their skills are as much about creativity as memory.

How do you think technology has affected how and what we remember?

Once upon a time people invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we’ve got books, and computers and smart phones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small forgotten thing as evidence that they’re failing us altogether. We’ve forgotten how to remember.

What is the connection between memory and our sense of time?

As we get older, life seems to fly by faster and faster. That’s because we structure our experience of time around memories. We remember events in relation to other events. But as we get older, and our experiences become less unique, our memories can blend together. If yesterday’s lunch is indistinguishable from the one you ate the day before, it’ll end up being forgotten. That’s why it’s so hard to remember meals. In the same way, if you’re not doing things that are unique and different and memorable, this year can come to resemble the last, and end up being just as forgettable as yesterday’s lunch. That’s why it’s so important to pack your life with interesting experiences that make your life memorable, and provide a texture to the passage of time.

How is your memory now?

Ironically, not much better than when I started this whole journey. The techniques I learned, and used in the memory contest, are great for remembering structured information like shopping lists or phone numbers, but they don’t improve any sort of underlying, generalizable memory ability. Unfortunately, I still misplace my car keys.

I'm interested in trying my hand at this whole memory training thing. Where should I go next?

Check out the wiki and forum at mnemotechnics.org, where “mental athletes” swap tips and tricks. And visit the World Memory Championships web site for a calendar of upcoming contests.

Moonwalking with Einstein is being published in 31 languages.
Here are a few of its covers.

FYE/Community Reads

Moonwalking with Einstein is a work of literary journalism that brings together cognitive science, cultural history, and philosophy to take a fresh, cross-disciplinary look at human memory–while telling a riveting tale about the meaning of education and the science of learning.

Josh has appeared at numerous colleges and high schools around the country and abroad, and is always eager to speak to students. Read what students and educators have said about Moonwalking with Einstein, and having Josh on campus:

“On the day of his campus visit, Joshua delivered a smart and funny lecture to a packed hall of 840 people. Incredibly, we had to turn 200 additional people away from the venue because we could not accommodate them. The UCSB Library—as the lead organizer of the program—could not have been happier with the visibility this gained us across campus and in the community…

In the end, we had seven courses reading the book with a total enrollment of 475 students… The book’s subject is truly interdisciplinary, appealing to faculty and students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences… Everyone has a connection to and an opinion about the subject of memory. It is a truly unifying subject… Joshua Foer is inspiring to college-aged students, as a young successful author whose success has been a product of discipline and commitment… Moonwalking with Einstein is a great fit for a college or university campus and I highly recommend it as the selection for a common reading program. Joshua Foer is a skilled speaker and a gracious and engaging guest. I would not hesitate in inviting him back to UCSB when the chance arises.”

- Rebecca L. Metzger, UCSB Assistant University Librarian for Outreach and Academic Collaboration

“Josh was a fabulous speaker. He was engaging, humorous, and had the audience with him the entire time! Josh was a pleasure to work with–a very genuine and down-to-earth individual. The students LOVED him, and he did an exceptional job with working with them in small groups.”

- Gene Eden, Director of Student Life at Lehigh Carbon Community College

“Lively, deft, and funny, Josh Foer was interviewed on stage in front of the whole school by a panel of students. He was the ideal closing keynote—knew how to engage and connect with bright and challenging young minds. The audience, even though it was the end of a day of seminars and workshops, was focused and with him every step. Faculty reaction was even more enthusiastic: my stock among colleagues went up measurably for having brought him in. We’d have him back in a heartbeat.”

- Harry Bauld, English Department, Horace Mann School

“Besides being an instant draw for students, instructors, and members of the community, Joshua Foer didn’t disappoint. His presentation was conversational, witty, and wise. He involved the whole audience, and nearly every attendee had a question or two. He supplied a dynamic evening that The City College of New York won’t soon forget.”

- Brandon Judell, Coordinator, The Simon H. Rifkind Center, City College of New York

Interviews & Articles

"How I Write"

The Daily Beast

"Curious by Profession"

Haaretz

"Memory Champs? They're Just Like the Rest of Us"

NPR's All Things Considered

"A Mind to Remember"

New Statesman

"Wonder Boys"

New Yorker

"Joshua Foer on Memory", FiveBooks Interviews

The Browser

The Characters

Ed Cooke Watch Video
Ed Cooke is a Grandmaster of Memory who coached Josh in the ancient art of memory. He is the founder of Memrise.
Ben Pridmore Watch Video
Ben Pridmore is a three-time World Memory Champion. He holds the world record for memorizing the order of 28 shuffled packs of playing cards in an hour.
Tony Buzan Watch Video
Tony Buzan is the founder of the World Memory Championship, and a proponent of "mental literacy."
Gunther Karsten Watch Video
Gunther Karsten is the eight-time German Memory Champion. He won the World Memory Championship in 2007.
Kim Peek Watch Video
Kim Peek is a savant who served as the inspiration for the character of Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man.
Daniel Tammet Watch Video
Daniel Tammet is a British writer and self-proclaimed savant, whose story is questioned by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstien.
The 2006 USA Memory Championship Watch Video
The 2006 USA Memory Championship is an Olympiad for memory games. Having covered the contest the year before as a journalist, Josh entered--and won--in 2006.
 
Named one of the best books of 2011 by:

Amazon.com, The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover Magazine, Men's Journal, The Sunday Times, & iTunes

 

Videos

 

Now Playing

There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique -- called the memory palace -- and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.

At the highest level, when you get really into this, it's all about concentration… It's kind of like an arms race, where every year somebody comes up with a new technique to remember more stuff more quickly.

Experts step outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing… They crave and thrive on immediate and constant feedback.

The kind folks at the World Science have very generously given me a list of 150 random words that they want me to memorize. I'm going to do that using an ancient technique called the memory palace.

TED Talk: Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do

Josh on the Colbert Report

Conquering the OK Plateau

To Remember Better, Build a Mansion in Your Mind

 

As seen on

TED 99% World Science Festival The Colbert Report
 

Projects

Atlas Obscura Sukkah City Quaterly Co
 

Selected Journalism

Utopian for Beginners

The New Yorker

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible.

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy

Esquire

How much of our humanity are we prepared to cede to machines? This is a dilemma of the future, but it's not much of a concern for Erik Ramsey. Erik can't move. He can't blink his eyes. And he hasn't said a word since 1999. But now, thanks to an electrode that was surgically implanted in his brain and linked to a computer, his nine-year silence is about to end.

The Truth About Chimps

National Geographic

Virtually innocent of human contact, the chimps of Congo's Goualougo Triangle display a sharp curiosity about us—and a sophisticated culture of toolmaking observed nowhere else.

Maximum Speed!

Outside

Over in Germany, water sliding is serious sport. Hiking up their Speedos, athletes of all shapes have learned how to top 50 miles per hour with only the occasional bloody nose and forehead stitches. This I had to try.

The Kiss of Life

New York Times

Let's dwell for a moment on the profoundly bizarre activity of kissing. Is there a more expressive gesture in the human repertoire?

The Adderall Me

Slate

My Romance with ADHD Meds

The Minor Histories

Cabinet

Giant spheres, odd sympathies, walking on water, and other pastimes.

 

News & Events

 

Upcoming Public Events

Latest News

Radiolab: The Pitch Drop Experiment

02.18.13

For the last three weeks, I’ve been in the Congolese rainforest, almost completely incommunicado thanks to a finicky satellite phone. While I was away, my first ever segment for NPR’s Radiolab aired, as part of an episode devoted to the subject of speed.

It’s about one of the world’s longest running science experiments, underway at the University of Queensland in Australia since 1927.

If, after listening to the piece, you’re interested in becoming a “pitch drop junkie” yourself, you can do so here. The ninth drop is expected to fall sometime in the next year. Will you be watching live?

 

How I Write

01.20.13

Each week the Daily Beast interviews a different author about his or her writing habits, for a series called “How I Write.” I talked about my favorite underwear, superstitions, and my morning routine. A couple answers below.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I have a woodshop in my garage. If I’ve made good progress in the morning, I’ll reward myself by going out back to spend an hour making sawdust, before returning to work for the afternoon. Woodworking requires a completely different kind of thinking and problem-solving ability than writing. With writing, you take a set of facts and ideas, and you reason your way forward to a story that pulls them together. With woodworking, you start with an end product in mind, and reason your way backward to the raw wood. If you can’t envision the entire journey that a plank of wood will take on its way to becoming something finished, you will make uncorrectable mistakes. With writing, each step of creation justifies the one that comes before. With woodworking, each step has to justify the one that comes after. On a good day, I’ve had a chance to exercise both kinds of reasoning.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

I was standing by the door, about to go on stage at Elliott Bay in Seattle, when a young couple got out of their seats and frantically rushed out past me. On her way out the door, the woman whispered to me, “Sorry, you lost out to Sacks.” I thought to myself, “Yeah, no hard feelings, if Oliver Sacks were in town, I’d probably choose to see him over me, too.” But, as I was walking up to the podium, it suddenly hit me. It wasn’t Sacks I’d lost out to. That’s the wonderful thing about Seattle: in New York, a horny couple would never have the common courtesy to explain to you why they were leaving your book reading.

Read the rest of the interview at the Daily Beast.

Linnaean Flower Clock

12.21.12

Linnean Flower Cock

Quarterly Co. is a subscription service that enables people to receive physical items in the mail from contributors of their choice. The theme of my quarterly mailings is “Machines for Experimental Living.” My most recent mailing was an Horologium Florae, or flower clock. Below is the letter I sent to subscribers:

Dear Quarterly Subscriber,

Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, divided the flowering plants into three groups: the meteorici, which change their opening and closing times according to the weather conditions; the tropici, which change their opening and closing times according to the length of the day; and the aequinoctales, which have fixed opening and closing times, regardless of weather or season. Linnaeus noted in his Philosophia Botanica that if one possessed a sufficiently large variety of aequinoctal species, it would be possible to tell time simply by observing the daily opening and closing of flowers. He commented, to the consternation of several local horologists, that his floral clock would be so accurate that it “could put all the watchmakers in Sweden out of business.” Though Linnaeus seems never actually to have planted an horologium florae, or flower clock, we shall. Enclosed in this package are seeds for a variety of aequinoctal flowers that can be used in an horologium florae.

Though winter is now nearly upon us in the northern hemisphere, that only means spring is not far behind. Please let me know how accurately your Linnaean flower clocks tells time, and be sure to email photos and videos to joshuafoer@quarterly.co or tweet them with the hashtag #JXF04.

Sincerely,

Joshua Foer

Subscriptions to “Machines for Experimental Living” cost just $25, and make a great gift. My next mailing ships in two months. Stay tuned.

Utopian for Beginners

12.18.12

John Quijada, inventor of IthkuilI’ve been following John Quijada, inventor of an artificial language called Ithkuil, for five and a half years. This week, my story on him ran in the New Yorker:

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

Read More

UPDATE: Here is a discussion the piece on the New Yorker’s “Out Loud” podcast.

Topophonic Telestereoscope

12.09.12

Topophonic Telestereoscope

This is a topophonic telestereoscope, a machine I built for exaggerated three-dimensional vision and sound. It is a mash-up of two nineteenth-century inventions: the topophone and the telestereoscope.

The topophone, shown at right, was invented by Alfred Mayer, a professor of physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, to help locate distant sounds. It worked by artificially exaggerating the distance between the ears, and amplifying their inputs. An 1880 Scientific American article, from which this image is drawn, explains the topophone’s intended purpose:

The aim of the topophone, which was invented and patented by Professor A. M. Mayer, last winter, is to enable the user to determine quickly and surely the exact direction and position of any source of sound. Our figure shows a portable style of the instrument; for use on ship-board it would probably form one of the fixtures of the pilot-house or the “bridge,” or both. In most cases arising in sailing through fogs, it would be enough for the captain or pilot to be sure of the exact direction of a fog horn, whistling buoy, or steam whistle; and for this a single aural observation suffices.

Acoustic locators were later widely used to pick up the distant rumble of aircraft engines–until the invention of radar during World War II rendered them all but obsolete. Below is a photograph of Emperor Hirohito touring Japanese “war tubas.”

And here’s an American version of the same technology, being demonstrated in 1921:


The telestereoscope was first described in 1857 by the German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who is best remembered for his treatise on the conservation of energy, and for inventing the opthalmoscope. The device uses widely separated mirrors to artificially increase intra-ocular distance and exaggerate the user’s perception of depth, giving “a much clearer representation of the form of a landscape than the view of the landscape itself.”

In 2000, a group of artists reconstructed the telestereoscope for the Burning Man Festival. The machine is mentioned briefly in one of my favorite books, Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman.

For those interested in building their own head-mounted telesterescopes, there is a java applet to help you calculate mirror angles and field of vision.