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.

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.

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

TED Talk: Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do

Josh on the Colbert Report

To Remember Better, Build a Mansion in Your Mind

Conquering the OK Plateau

 

As seen on

TED The Colbert Report World Science Festival 99%
 

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

Science Writing: How Do You Make Complex Issues Accessible and Readable?

12.03.12

A five-way conversation published in the Observer between me, Stephen Pinker, Lone Frank, James Gleick, and Brian Greene about the state of science writing.

Moonwalking with Santa Claus

11.25.12

Order a signed copy of Moonwalking with Einstein. I'll inscribe your own holiday message.

Are you looking for just the right gift to give to that beloved uncle, aunt, cousin, or co-worker? May I humbly recommend a signed copy of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything? Order by December 9th, and I’ll inscribe the book with whatever custom message you want (at no extra charge). Fill out the form and order now.

Learning Lingala

11.11.12

For my next long-term project, about the last hunter-gatherer societies, and what they can teach us, I’ve been spending time living with Mbendjele pygmies in the Republico of Congo. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian Magazine about how I learned Lingala (or at least memorized the entire dictionary), using Ed Cooke’s web app, Memrise.

One of the great challenges of our age, in which the tools of our productivity are also the tools of our leisure, is to figure out how to make more useful those moments of procrastination when we’re idling in front of our computer screens. What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?

If five million people can be convinced to log into Zynga’s Facebook game Farmville each day to water a virtual garden and literally watch the grass grow on their computer screens, surely, Ed believes, there must be a way to co-opt those same neural circuits that reward mindless gaming to make learning more addictive and enjoyable. That’s the great ambition of Memrise, and it points towards a future where we’re constantly learning in tiny chunks of our downtime.

Amateur Hour with America’s Foremost Picker of Locks

11.11.12

This Wednesday, November 14th, Schuyler Towne will try to convince you that locks are just social constructs. I’ll be interviewing Schuyler at 7pm at the Institute Library in New Haven. Join us.

Schuyler Towne is a competitive lockpicker and pioneer of the American Locksport movement. He is a founding board member of the Open Organization of Lockpickers, U.S. Chapter, and in 2007 launched Non-Destructive Entry magazine. Mr. Towne will both discuss the history of locks and lockpicking and demonstrate his special skill.

Please join Institute Library members and host Joshua Foer for a conversation with Mr. Towne Wednesday, November 14, at 7:00 p.m. Beer and wine will be available for purchase ($5 per drink), complimentary light refreshments will be provided by Atticus Bookstore and Café, and collectible limited editions of posters signed by Schuyler Towne and Josh Foer will be available for sale following the event.

Audience members are invited to bring with them the strongest locks they own.

Moonwalking Shortlisted for Royal Society Winton Prize

09.25.12

Moonwalking with Einstein has been shortlisted for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, along with several extraordinary titles. From the Guardian:

If you love reading “stimulating, engaging, clear, accessible, and high-quality” science books, then you are going to love this: the Royal Society of London just announced the shortlist for this year’s Winton Prize for science writing. This Prize recognises and rewards books that make science more accessible to public adult audiences.

“This year’s shortlist is made up of fascinating, provocative books that really made us think about ourselves and the world around us — and parallel worlds”, Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS, chair of the judges, said in a press release.

“The books explore emerging issues, such as pandemics, as well as the more fundamental questions of what it truly means to be human, from our genetics, to our memories or our propensity for violence. Choosing a winner from these books, each of which has provided us with wonderful new insights, is a daunting prospect.”