Moonwalking with Einstein

For years we’ve admonished brands that marketing is not about what you want to tell your customer, it’s about what your customer needs to hear. That until you think about what you’re doing for them, you have little hope of them remembering who you are, or stopping what they are doing to find out.

Usually when we make this case, we are dismissed as being overly-emotional creatives who really need to grow up. Fair enough.

But reading Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, we realize that what we intuitively understood is based in science – specifically, the science around memory.

Foer’s book explores memory in a variety of fascinating ways, starting with a foray into the curious world of “mental athletes”, people who compete in feats of memory. Yes, this is a thing, and one which has distinct and internationally sanctioned, competitive categories. Like “speed cards”, which tests who can memorize a deck of 52 cards in order the fastest. Or “names and faces” in which competitors must connect the correct names to over 100 random faces in 15 minutes. Or “speed numbers” where entrants have five minutes to recount as many digits as possible from a list of pages with 25 rows of 20 digits per row. And more. What begins with a sort of wry, bemused detachment for Foer, quickly devolves into a sort of mania as he finds himself practicing to become a competing “Mental Athlete” himself.

This leads him to investigate the people he is competing amongst, an unusual collection of characters who travel the world pushing their brains to these particular and exceptional limits. How they do this (and why) provides another thread that Foer follows, exploring the nature of memory itself – how it appears to work (scientists are still not exactly sure), but also the role it has played in Western culture for millennia. Using historical anecdotes, and stories from psychological and medical history, Foer pulls out clues to explain what’s going on, and that will also (he hopes) help him become a top competitor. Which leads to the fourth thread in the book, in which Foer spends quality time with modern researchers who are using all manner of tests, observations and exercises to try to figure out just exactly what’s going on in our noggins.

Along the way, Foer spends a lot of time with two memory strategies that all of the competitors use in some form or another – the “memory palace” and “chunking”.

In the former, one visualizes a highly familiar location – say a childhood home – and then “places” the things that need to be remembered in a sequence around that “palace”. For example, say you have a grocery list you’re trying to remember. Place the first item – 3 carrots – in the family room, the next item – a pound of green beans – in the next room, the kitchen, and the next item – a gallon of orange juice – in the next room, say, the dining room.  In short, you populate your childhood home – a place you are so familiar with that you hardly need to think about it – with the things you are trying to remember. This works, the thinking goes, because you are connecting “alien” things that you have no relationship with, to familiar things that you do.

Now “chunking” is sort of the opposite of that. It involves taking long unintelligible things and breaking them into pieces that you can remember more easily – again by connecting them to things you already know. Like this 12 digit numerical string that Foer provides as an example: 120741091101:

Break it into four chunks – 120, 741, 091, 101 – and it becomes a little easier. Turn it into two chunks, 12/07/41 and 09/11/01, and they’re almost impossible to forget. …Notice that the process of chunking takes seemingly meaningless information and reinterprets it in light of information that is already stored away somewhere in our long-term memory.

And that’s the key. Both “memory palace” and “chunking” work because they connect things that mean nothing to you with things that do. Like the deeply imprinted shape of your childhood house with a grocery list of things that are NOT deeply imprinted – disconnecting them along the way from the simple words that represent them and transforming them into images you can visualize and more easily remember. As Foer writes:

When you hear that the man in the photo is a baker, that fact gets embedded in a wide network of ideas about what it means to be a baker: He cooks bread, he wears a big white hat, he smells good when he comes home from work. The name Baker, on the other hand, is tethered only to a memory of the person’s face. That link is tenuous and should it dissolve, the name will float off irretrievably into the netherworld of lost memories. (When a word feels like it’s stuck on the tip of the tongue, it’s likely because we’re accessing only part of the neural network that ‘contains’ the idea, but not all of it.) But when it comes to the man’s profession, there are multiple strings to reel the memory back in. Even if you don’t at first remember that the man is a baker, perhaps you get some vague sense of breadiness about him, or see some association between his face and a big white hat, or maybe you conjure up a memory of your own neighborhood bakery. There are any number of knots in that tangle of associations that can be traced back to his profession.

You connect a thing you don’t think about to a thing you do, and thus you remember it.

Now, imagine doing advertising that way. Building creative that connected to what was already important to our customers – instead of just deluging their “eyeballs” at every conceivable touchpoint with brainless chatter about ourselves. Imagine giving them something to visualize, to connect with, to remember, about our brands.

Nah. It would never work. Forget we even suggested it.


Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer was published by Penguin Press on 03/03/2011 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

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Shortcut by John Pollack
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The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath