Moonwalking With Einstein

“You can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”

I spent the weekend finishing up Moonwalking with Einstein, a fascinating read that has already created a spiderweb of ancillary reading material including: Rhetorica ad Herennium, On the Ideal Orator, The Art of Memory, etc.  Looking forward to applying many of the techniques discussed in Mind Mapping our investment process.

In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus. The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future. Creativity, is in a sense, future memory.

If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be at coming up with new ideas.

The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counterintuitive.  Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory.

This is what the art of memory was ultimately most useful for. It was not merely a tool for recording but also a tool of invention and composition. The realization that composing depended on a well-furnished and securely available memory formed the basis of rhetorical education in antiquity. Brains were as organized as modern filing cabinets, with important facts, quotations and ideas stuffed into neat mnemonic cubbyholes, where they would never go missing, and where they could be recombined and strung together on the fly. The goal of training one’s memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas.

It’s too easy to punch a number into a cell phone today or to leave a trail of Post-It Notes to follow behind.  I wonder if we haven’t lost a little something along the way.


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