Joshua Foer

Joshua
Foer
1982

American Freelance Journalist, Author of "Moonwalking with Einstein", Co-Founder of Atlas Obscura and Design Competition "Sukkah City", Winner of U.S. Memory Championship

Author Quotes

What makes things memorable is that they are meaningful, significant, colorful.

When I climb into my car, I enter my destination into a GPS device, whose spatial memory supplants my own. I have photographs to store the images I want to remember, books to store knowledge and now, thanks to Google, I rarely have to remember anything more than the right set of search terms to access humankind's collective memory.

When we first hear [a] word, we start putting these associational hooks into it that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.

Who we are and what we do it is fundamentally a function of what we remember.

William James wrote (in Principles of Psychology in 1890): In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units... Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older.

With our blogs and tweets, digital cameras, and unlimited-gigabyte e-mail archives, participation in the online culture now means creating a trail of always present, ever searchable, unforgetting external memories that only grows as one ages.

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.

We reserve the term 'genius' for people who are creative, who are innovators, who think in ways that are entirely new. In the Middle Ages, the term 'genius' was reserved for people with the best memories. That is telling.

We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, or invention, or insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least.

We're visual creatures. Probably, when we were hunter gatherers... that was the kind of thing that mattered. And remembering, say, phone numbers was, like, not that important when you're hunting down a mastodon or whatever.

We've forgotten how to remember, and just as importantly, we've forgotten how to pay attention. So, instead of using your smartphone to jot down crucial notes, or Googling an elusive fact, use every opportunity to practice your memory skills. Memory is a muscle, to be exercised and improved.

We've outsourced our memories to digital devices, and the result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small forgotten thing as evidence that they're failing us.

What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity.

Forgotten phone numbers and birthdays represent minor erosions of our everyday memory, but they are part of a much larger story of how we've supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches?from the alphabet to the BlackBerry. These technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped make our modern world possible, but they've also changed how we think and how we use our brains.

Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like 'knight.'

Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

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 don't get appreciably faster. That's because it's become automatic. You've moved it to the back of your mind's filing cabinet.

Growing up in the days when you still had to punch buttons to make a telephone call, I could recall the numbers of all my close friends and family. Today, I'm not sure if I know more than four phone numbers by heart. And that's probably more than most.

Learning texts is worth doing not because it's easy but because it's hard.

Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events.

The sport of competitive memorizing is driven by a kind of arms race where every year somebody comes up with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the field has to play catch-up.

How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by losing ourselves in our Blackberries, our iPhones, by not paying attention to the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we're not willing to process deeply?

Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older.

Our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by? not paying attention?

Author Picture
First Name
Joshua
Last Name
Foer
Birth Date
1982
Bio

American Freelance Journalist, Author of "Moonwalking with Einstein", Co-Founder of Atlas Obscura and Design Competition "Sukkah City", Winner of U.S. Memory Championship