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Joshua Foer
Joshua Foer
Apr 15, 2024 1:27 PM

A science journalist becomes the U.S. Memory Champion. We meet Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein:The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from the book below.

Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? I don’t mean time in the sense that, say, physicists speak of it: the fourth dimension, the independent variable, the quantity that compresses when you approach the speed of light. I mean psychological time, the tempo at which we experience life’s passage. Time as a mental construct. Watching EP struggle to recount his own age, I recalled one of the stories Ed Cooke had told me about his research at the University of Paris when we met at the U.S. Memory Championship.

“I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer,” Ed had mumbled to me on the sidewalk outside the Con Ed headquarters, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?”

“And how are you going to do that?” I asked.

“By remembering more. By providing my life with more chronological landmarks. By making myself more aware of time’s passage.”

I told him that his plan reminded me of Dunbar, the pilot in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 who reasons that since time flies when you’re having fun, the surest way to slow life’s passage is to make it as boring as possible.

Ed shrugged. “Quite the opposite. The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly.

Our subjective experience of time is highly variable. We all know that days can pass like weeks and months can feel like years, and that the opposite can be just as true: A month or year can zoom by in what feels like no time at all.

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. Just as we accumulate memories of facts by integrating them into a network, we accumulate life experiences by integrating them into a web of other chronological memories. The denser the web, the denser the experience of time.

It’s a point well illustrated by Michel Siffre, a French chronobiologist (he studies the relationship between time and living organisms) who conducted one of the most extraordinary acts of self-experimentation in the history of science. In 1962, Siffre spent two months living in total isolation in a subterranean cave, without access to clock, calendar, or sun. Sleeping and eating only when his body told him to, he sought to discover how the natural rhythms of human life would be affected by living “beyond time.”

Very quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated. In the dreary darkness, his days melded into one another and became one continuous, indistinguishable blob. Since there was nobody to talk to, and not much to do, there was nothing novel to impress itself upon his memory. There were no chronological landmarks by which he could measure the passage of time. At some point he stopped being able to remember what happened even the day before. His experience in isolation had turned him into EP. As time began to blur, he became effectively amnesic. Soon, his sleep patterns disintegrated. Some days he’d stay awake for thirty-six straight hours, other days for eight — without being able to tell the difference. When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal. He thought only a month had gone by. His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

William James first wrote about the curious warping and foreshortening of psychological time in his 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,” he wrote. “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, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. “If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human,” said Ed.

There is perhaps a bit of Peter Pan to Ed’s quest to make his life maximally memorable, but of all the things one could be obsessive about collecting, memories of one’s own life don’t seem like the most unreasonable. There’s something even strangely rational about it. There’s an old philosophical conundrum that often gets bandied about in introductory philosophy courses: In the nineteenth century, doctors began to wonder whether the general anesthetic they had been administering to patients might not actually put the patients to sleep so much as freeze their muscles and erase their memories of the surgery. If that were the case, could the doctors be said to have done anything wrong? Like the proverbial tree that falls without anyone hearing it, can an experience that isn’t remembered be meaningfully said to have happened at all? Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?

From MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Joshua Foer.

Related Links:

Joshua Foer's website

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