On Memory - Part 1
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about memory. Part of this is because memorizing things is one of my favorite hobbies - I’ve been making memory palaces for over 10 years now and it’s a great source of joy. I will write more later about how exactly I memorize, why I memorize and various things I’ve learned along the way but first I want to talk about what an odd role memory plays in our lives.
It’s common nowadays to speak pejoratively about “rote memorization.” In a world where we can Google anything and everything, why should we spend time learning things by heart? There were things we used to collectively memorize that now have no place in our lives. We used to memorize phone numbers of all our friends and family! How quaint!
It was the same with most knowledge for most of human history - if you didn’t know something, and if nobody around you knew about that something, you just had to live with the question until you happened upon a book or person that could help. What language do people speak in Madagascar? What’s the population of Poland? How do you cook a pavlova? Who knows! People that knew a lot of facts were valuable.
That all is a relic of the past of course. We have access to all of the world’s information! We have Google! And yet, memory still plays a huge role in our lives. Everywhere I look I see memory - the absence of it (such as in Alzheimers) is so painful to watch, and a wealth of memory is seen as a sign of vitality and intelligence. Most of our schools are still focused on memorization (either explicitly or implicitly) and our exams and tests are usually facades on top evaluations of how well someone can memorize.
Given we live in a different world from the phone-number-memorizing days, it’s fascinating to me how memory persists as a trait that we correlate with smarts and imbue with respect. For example, if I meet someone, ask their name and then don’t remember it a few minutes or hours later, they often get offended. Having a bad memory is seen as a sign of disrespect: “Wow. I can’t believe you don’t remember my name! We’ve met twice before!” And the opposite is also true, if you meet someone once and then remember them a few years later, people are in awe: “Wow. You have an incredible memory. I can’t believe you remember me and that I have a poodle whose name is X and was born on date Y and live in location Z.” This person must be a genius!
But alas, it’s just memory - some people are born with “great memories” and for some others it’s an investment in memory systems and techniques.
I’m in the latter group - I don’t have a world-class memory in the conventional sense (I know because I have some friends that are in that camp and they shock me with some of their recollections). And yet since learning about memory palaces over the past years I’ve memorized hundreds (thousands?) of things: I can recite by memory facts from hundreds of pages of various books. When I do this for people it seems impressive and it seems like intelligence but it’s just a parlor trick - it’s the result of a good spaced repetition system and some memory palaces. Anyone can do it if they set their minds to it…
If you have good memory you suddenly seem smarter. When you start to look around you’ll notice that many people rely almost exclusively on their memories to convey their intelligence. A telltale sign of this is listing: some people when they are asked to think about a problem, they’ll recite a pre-established list: “We have 12 things on the agenda…1,2,3,…” Oh wow, what a smart person you think. But memory itself is not intelligence - it’s just recall.
All that said, I don’t believe that memory doesn’t matter. I believe that memory matters a lot, it’s just that memory matters because of what it enables rather than as a goal unto itself.
Memory is a key part of our experience as social animals - it allows us to develop shared narratives and have shared experiences. It connects us and strengthens social bonds; this is why remembering the name matters - it’s a cue we rely on in an intuitive way to feel closer to each other. When we don’t have memory about our interpersonal and social context we can’t participate as well in this social rapport.
Memory is also scaffolding for thinking - being able to recall ideas is the fodder for building new thoughts and new innovations. Being able to list out facts is helpful in order to then connect them together. If we have to Google for every fact and every concept we can’t move with the speed and ease necessary to make quick and distant connections that spark innovation.
Similarly for skill-building. Memory is often the main foundation for skills - do you want to learn the piano? You need to learn how to read the notes and you also need to usually memorize the pieces to play them more fluidly. Learning languages is also primarily about memorizing thousands of words and then being able to combine them in useful patterns.
And finally, memory helps us enrich our experience of the world - remembering things adds layers of complex reality onto our lived experience that can be a real joy when invested in. Giving names to things enables rapid and complex information retrieval. For example, being able to recall information at the animal → vertebrate → bird → Gulls → California Gull levels of an animal taxonomy allows you to have a quick, enriched experience of what you’re seeing in front of you. It’s the same joy that a baseball fan can have recalling statistics about their favorite players and teams - it enriches the game.
Overall, I believe we all should build a memory habit into our everyday life and that we should teach everyone how to expand their natural memories. In parallel, I’m hopeful that this will help demystify and decouple memory from intelligence so we can start making better use of our problem solving brains. Memory matters but it matters for reasons deeper than we normally appreciate.
With that preface I’ll spend a few posts over the coming weeks talking more about how to develop a memory habit, what I’ve learned about memory from my practice and how you can do the same.
Photo of Point Lobos in Carmel - added here so I can have a splash picture.