Why a Bad Memory’s Not Such a Bad Thing

Toy Babar the Elephant abandoned next to a trashcan in New York CityGeneral knowledge is overrated.

Yes, it can help you feel clever playing quiz games, in arguments with friends, or shouting at the TV during a game show.

But when was the last time there was any practical need for you to know the the author of Little Dorrit or the distance of Pluto from the Sun, and you were unable to look it up?

Trivial Pursuit got its name for a reason.

Yet every few months, the newspapers run a story lamenting the fact that a group of schoolchildren were unable to name the capital of Uganda or the molecular structure of Magnesium, and cite this as proof that education is in terminal decline.

And how often do we hear friends worry that their ‘memory is going’, and that they must therefore be on the slippery slope towards old age?

There seems to be a universal assumption that the ability to remember certain facts is essential to a good education, and that a ‘good memory’ is intrinsically a good thing. We revere people who can perform incredible feats of memory, and look down on those who are unable to regurgitate information that ‘everyone’ is expected to know.

The internet is the latest culprit to be blamed for the decline of memory in modern society, due to the way it’s changing our brains:

Who bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more, for example, when they know that Google will always retrieve it if it’s needed again? The web has become, in a way, a global prosthesis for our collective memory.

(John Naughton, The Internet: is it changing the way we think?)

The implication is that this is a bad thing. I disagree.

I don’t believe it’s a tragedy if we use the internet to look up facts. I don’t believe it’s a tragedy if children go through school without knowing the annual rainfall in Peru. I believe it’s a tragedy if we see education as a process of memorising and regurgitating facts.

Information is no longer a scarce resource. Instead of worrying about what our children know or don’t know, we should be teaching them to think creatively and productively. We should show them how to solve meaningful problems and make new and valuable things. (Which requires us to know how to do this ourselves.)

Naughton asks who bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more. The obvious answer is: people who need or want to do this, for whom the information is valuable.

People learning a foreign language they’ll use in daily life.

People who need to know technical information inside-out, for use in their work.

People who know that the right information in the right time and place can save lives.

People who want to memorise a poem for the sheer pleasure of having it in their minds (yes, such people still exist, even in this benighted age).

One of my personal goals over the next few years is to learn Japanese, including the writing system – all three of them. I have a box containing 2,000 kanji flashcards in my desk, with a series of books to accompany them. I’ve roadtested the system and know it works. It will take me a lot of time and effort, but I’m confident I can do it.

And it will be worth all the effort, in spite of the fact that I can have the same kanji on an iPhone app in my pocket. It will even be worth it when there are iPhone apps that instantly translates foreign text and even live conversations. Nothing beats the sheer pleasure of speaking and reading a foreign language for yourself.

But I need a good reason to make an effort like this. There’s no point memorising things for the sake of it.

Improving Your Memory Is Easy

If you want to improve your memory, read Tony Buzan‘s book Use Your Memory. It will show you how to memorise anything you set your mind to. Seriously.

Buzan explodes the myth that our powers of memory inevitably fade as we grow older, by teaching practical techniques you can use to improve your memory for any kind of information.

Among his ‘principles of superpower memory’ are:

  • Association – linking a new piece of information to something you already remember easily
  • Sensuality – the more sensory information (images, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes) associated with a memory, the easier it will be to recall
  • Sex – we all have a good memory for this!
  • Humour – the funnier you can make your facts, the more memorable they will be
  • Number and sequence – help to recall related bits of information in order

The book shows how to combine these fundamental principles into powerful and complex memory systems. You can then use these to remember names, numbers, dates, lists, speeches, poems, languages and facts for examinations. It’s one of the most useful books I’ve ever read, and the best part is that the techniques are fun to use as well as effective.

A Good Memory Is a Means, Not an End

My one criticism of Buzan’s book is that it perpetuates the idea that it’s desirable to memorise anything and everything. Here he is on the subject of schedules:

As with telephone numbers, many people find appointments and schedules hard to remember. They use similar systems for coping with their problem, the most common, of course, being the daily appointment book.

I don’t think an appointments diary is a sign of a ‘problem’. In his admirable enthusiasm for memorising things, Buzan has overlooked the fact that any act of memory requires time and mental bandwidth. Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is energy-hungry, and if we expend energy on one type of task, it will leave less for others. And personally, I’ve got better things to do with my brain than remember all my appointments and to-do lists.

I’m profoundly grateful for Buzan’s work, and I use his techniques to remember all kinds of essential and enjoyable information, including:

  • Computer passwords
  • My wife’s phone number (in case my phone gets lost or stolen)
  • Things I teach in seminars or coaching sessions
  • Foreign languages
  • Poems

But I’m perfectly happy using a diary to capture my appointments for the day, and trusting Google Calendar to text me the week before an anniversary or birthday. And I’ve never lost any sleep over not knowing how many furlongs there are in a mile.

To me, the value of facts lies in what we can do with them:

  • Do they help us communicate better?
  • Do they help us create something new?
  • Do they help us solve an important problem?
  • Could they be needed in an emergency?

If not, I’m perfectly happy to have a memory like a sieve. Sieves get a bad press, but they’re extremely good at one thing: letting waste drain away and leaving the valuable stuff behind.

Image by Zoom Zoom

What Do You Think?

Do you agree that we have better things to do with our brains than remember facts?

Any tips on improving memory?

Should I be sent to the back of the class for not knowing the date of the first modern Olympic Games?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Well, a bad memory *is* a bad thing…

    “I believe it’s a tragedy if we see education as a process of memorising and regurgitating facts”
    – you don’t memorize facts in school because it is important to remember the facts themselves, but because it is critical to *learn* how to memorize stuff !!!

    And surprise, surprise – kids don’ think it it “fun” to memorize stuff – they would much rather play and have fun :-) This is why you have to “force” them to memorize stuff in order to learn this very important ability.

    You don’t have to remember all kinds of facts, but you can’t search google for something if you don’t even remember what you were searching for ;-)

    And if you grow up hating the memorizing you did in school, it is better that you memorized “the rainfall in Peru” and similar (not so important) stuff instead of “vitamins and minerals” or other useful stuff ;-)

    • Well, a bad memory *is* a bad thing…

      I didn’t say it wasn’t. I said it’s not such a bad thing.

      you don’t memorize facts in school because it is important to remember the facts themselves, but because it is critical to *learn* how to memorize stuff !!!

      If that were true, most of the world’s population would be confident of being able to memorise whatever they wanted. And they are not.

      And surprise, surprise – kids don’ think it it “fun” to memorize stuff – they would much rather play and have fun :-) This is why you have to “force” them to memorize stuff in order to learn this very important ability.

      If you think ‘force’ is a good way to encourage children to learn, you have a lot to learn about learning.

      And if you read Buzan’s book – or even my article, carefully – you’ll see that the techniques he describes make the process fun.

    • “And surprise, surprise – kids don’ think it it “fun” to memorize stuff – they would much rather play and have fun :-) This is why you have to “force” them to memorize stuff in order to learn this very important ability.”

      I couldn’t disagree with this more. From my experience, making things fun and engaging is actually the key to learning. “Force” is a great way to keep students distracted, bored, and rebellious. This is so blatantly wrong that I can’t tell if you are being sarcastic or not.

  2. I tend to remember what I need to, some stuff will get lost, some will be stored away in sub conscious. I also find forcing yourself to remember certain things, you are guaranteed to forget it.

  3. keeping up with so many information these days is truly quite a task. So i do agree with using technology to help us remember some things every once in a while, but my fear is this Mark; wouldn’t this over-dependence on technology cripple the capacity of our brain to store and retrieve information since we now depend on machines?

    • Good question. But I don’t think the dependence is so total as to cripple us. As long as we’re still exercising the ‘memory muscles’ by memorising some (important) information, then we could transfer the ability to different areas if the need arose.

      E.g. if there were a nuclear war and the internet was destroyed. But in that case, we’d probably have more to worry about than the loss of Wikipedia. ;-)

  4. Hello Mark,

    I have a terrible memory! I didn’t do well at school exams because of my bad memory. But i think I am a good example of being really good at living and working ‘despite’ having a bad memory.

    Weirdly I have an excellent memory for money related numbers. Go figure. I also have an good visual memory.

    I totally agree that creativity and creative thinking should be a priority in teaching, but obviously that makes examinations tricky because they are all Q&A. I admire people who have natural photographic memories – they are amazing to be around and some I know are really creative too. Damn them! It does seem to make you look smarter.

    But thanks for the article – I don’t feel so bad now. I do remember exactly what I need to to make my life work and generally forget everything else.

    I have no intention of making my son memorize information especially the times tables! He is designing our Christmas card this year though.

    Cheers Mark
    Binita

    • Weirdly I have an excellent memory for money related numbers. Go figure. I also have an good visual memory.

      So you do have a good memory – at least in some respects. Buzan would say that gives you the possibility of applying these memory strategies to other areas.

      Visual memory is particularly flexible – e.g. check out the Roman Room Technique.

  5. Back when memorization was an integral part of learning, there was much less information in the world. Usually, the things that people memorized were important to them and their immediate culture: Scriptures, Shakespeare and other poetic works, elements of math and language. Some of these things are no longer important in our wider culture, and some don’t give you as much of an edge anymore.

    This is what concerns me the most about the dearth of memorization: Memorization helps us internalize important information in a way unlike any other. I’m thinking less of facts and more of things like poetic works. And by internalizing, I don’t mean “available for recall” but available for the mind to ponder, and creatively reorganize and integrate.

    For instance, the naturalist, John Muir was a giant of his age. Much of his influence came from his use of language, his ability to communicate the affect & importance of natural beauty. Muir memorized much of the Psalms, and an incredible amount of Shakespeare when he was young. He owned those words in a way different from a mere reader of them. So, when wandering Yosemite, Muir could engage nature on a deeper level, then translate that into engaging prose. His prose is responsible for waking an entire nation up to it’s need to preserve its forests and streams.

    In an age of so much information, I wonder what would be the most beneficial for us to memorize?

    • Memorization helps us internalize important information in a way unlike any other.

      I think ‘important’ is the (ahem) important word here. With so much information at our fingertips, we have the luxury of choosing what to commit to memory. You’re right that internalizing is more than just recall – it makes the information part of you, like digesting food.

      For me, the important stuff is usually language – poetry, a foreign language, or just new English words to add to my vocabulary. My poetry teacher Mimi Khalvati points out that memorising a poem really makes you read it carefully.

  6. Marcy Gerena says:

    Mark,

    You bring up a lot of great points.

    “Information is no longer a scarce resource. Instead of worrying about what our children know or don’t know, we should be teaching them to think creatively and productively. We should show them how to solve meaningful problems and make new and valuable things. (Which requires us to know how to do this ourselves.)”

    I agree the value in information is knowing what to do with the information.

    In addition to the points you provided:

    “To me, the value of facts lies in what we can do with them:

    ■Do they help us communicate better?
    ■Do they help us create something new?
    ■Do they help us solve an important problem?
    ■Could they be needed in an emergency?”

    I would say taking the questions a little bit further.

    1. In what type of situation would the information help us communicate better?
    2. If there is not an obvious revelation that it helps to create something new immediately, what element would need to be brought in or added to the information to be able to apply, be proactive or create?
    3. If the information doesn’t help to solve a problem we are directly connected, does a portion of the information help us personally? Who would the information help and in what type of situation?

  7. Marcy Gerena says:

    Oh and I agree with you…

    “letting waste drain away and leaving the valuable stuff behind.”

  8. I suppose you can compare human memory to computer memory:

    ROM (Read Only Memory) – the stuff that you need to remember accurately

    RAM (Random Access Memory) – the stuff that you need at your fingertips, but not necessarily in your mind (like phone numbers and passwords)

    Hard disk or removable media – the stuff that you don’t need regularly but you might need someday (like the detailed history of the Olympics, recipes, your financial statements, etc.)

    Memorization does provide a level of security (as long as you don’t take too many sharp blows to the head) but it seems to be less important than it used to be.

  9. I read everyone of these Lateral Action posts but don’t often comment…this time I really must! I had a great memory when younger and am finding as I age (now 65) that some things are very difficult for me to remember – especially names and specific descriptive adjectives or adverbs I am trying to embellish a thought with. I feel much better about the situation now! Things do come to me when I let them “stew” for a while in the back of my mind and I also try to use associative visual ideas to help remember things like names and that does work…sometimes:-) Kids today are not less able to remember stuff it is just that the things they are interested in remembering are different from what they were when we were kids – my grandparents could quote things I knew nothing about. Before Gutenberg every body HAD to remember stuff – most couldn’t read or write. The process of education grows and changes with the growth and change of the times. I think ( and hope )kids are learning about the things that really count for these times – they are being taught about ecology and healthy living – at least some are, I know, from talking with children. They are going to have to clean up the mess things are in and I feel confidant they are up to it, even though I feel saddened that it has to be this way. I am very thankful for being able to look up online whatever I want to know – there is only so much room inside my skull for all this stuff.

    • Welcome to the comments Karen. :-)

      Yes, it’s traditional to give the younger generations a hard time for thinking different to their seniors, but I like the way you trust that they’ll learn/remember/forget what they need to.

  10. Hi, Mark,
    I totally agree! So many of my clients feel frustrated or even ashamed that they can’t remember doctor’s appointments and phone numbers. I urge them to use the convenient and helpful tools at their disposal, such as datebooks and address books. Why fill up their brains with information that can be easily stored and retrieved elsewhere? Why not use that brain for creative work that only it can do?

    My theory about memory going bad as one ages is that it’s due to many more life experiences being piled up in there. In college, you needed to remember where your dorm room was and that a paper was due the next day and not much else. When you’ve accumulated 40 years of living, there’s that much more stored in your brain so it makes sense that picking out certain facts is a bit harder. Again, just use the tools and stop worrying about it.

    I should note that both my parents have terrible memories. My dad kept a small notebook in his shirt pocket constantly to make notes in. I can tell my mom the same joke once every few months and she’ll laugh because she’s forgotten it!

    • Thanks Claire. Re the accumulated life experiences – one of the fascinating asides in Buzan’s book describes some research into near-death experiences, where people’s lives allegedly ‘flash before them’. Apparently the subjects insisted that they weren’t just watching an edited highlights package, but the memories of their entire lives, in minute detail…. which suggests a pretty impressive storage capacity for the old grey hard drive!

  11. Rosanne Bachman says:

    Mark, I was roaring with laughter reading this. It was great. It was very timely for me because I got a very important meeting time wrong the other day. I swear I looked at the calendar the night before, albeit at midnight after writing a 15 page report, and saw that it was at 2:30. I had the time on the calendar on my iphone, did I look at it NO because I was sure I knew what time the meeting was… so I showed up at 2:30 for a 2:00 meeting. So the memory was good but it didn’t remember the right info!

  12. Hi Mark

    Loved your post! I personally have a great memory for all sorts of stuff AND for synthesising information and what I can do with it…

    I had a chuckle at an episode of the BBC series Sherlock Holmes recently (set in contemporary times), where Holmes is a tad offended at Watson’s blog post on a recent case:

    http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/sherlock/the-great-game.php

    ‘Holmes: Flattered? “Sherlock sees through everyone and everything in seconds. What’s incredible though is how spectacularly ignorant he is about some things.”

    Watson: Now hang on minute, I didn’t mean that in a—

    Holmes: Oh! You meant “spectacularly ignorant” in a nice way. Look, it doesn’t matter to me who’s Prime Minister or who’s sleeping with who.

    Watson: Whether the Earth goes around the sun.

    Holmes: Oh god, that again. It’s not important!

    Watson: Not important? It’s primary school stuff. How can you not know that?

    Holmes: Well If I ever did, I deleted it.

    Watson: Deleted it?

    Holmes: Listen. This is my hard drive and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful. Really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish. And that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters. Do you see?

    Watson: But it’s the solar system!

    Holmes: Oh! How? What does that matter? So we go ’round the sun. If we went ’round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that my brain rots. Put that in your blog.’

    I was greatly amused by his ‘I deleted it’ comment, as in my early school days, I did not want to learn times tables, because I thought human beings only had so much memory space (like computers, although they were years away from becoming the ubiquitous items they are now) and did not want to waste it learning times tables!

    I did end up learning my times tables, and a lot of other things besides. But I think teaching everyone how to think is a more important skill than rote learning.

  13. Interesting article. Personally, I noticed that I typically earned slightly better scores on essay exams, as compared with multiple choice or fill-in exams. I realized that my memory is based around concepts. I understand, and I can explain it well, but if you ask me very specific questions, I may have trouble recalling the details.
    As for modern technology, I praise the invention of GPS because I suffer from directional impairment!

  14. “Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is energy-hungry, and if we expend energy on one type of task, it will leave less for others.”

    This is key. I like to think of the mind as it’s own kind of economy. If we allocate our resources to one aspect, then we have less to allocate in other aspects. This a big theme in Marvin Minsky’s writings.

    “Yet every few months, the newspapers run a story lamenting the fact that a group of schoolchildren were unable to name the capital of Uganda or the molecular structure of Magnesium, and cite this as proof that education is in terminal decline.”

    The ones that worry me, however, are when students don’t know who the Vice President is…

    I’ve never liked trivia, and I’ve always sucked at it, so this makes me feel better about myself!

  15. Chris Vaughan says:

    You’ve touched on a profound subject here, Mark. Merlin Donald in his brilliant “A Mind So Rare” says its the human race’s ability to manipulate what he calls symbolic technologies, from the invention of writing through to today’s digital world that has expanded our collective memory exponentially with external memory devices. Works of art, books, Google are all part of this permanent record-keeping that preserves us from the episodic existence of our forebears. John Naughton makes a related point in your quotation about the internet being a global prosthesis. Whatever we commit to paper or film or a website is, indeed, a social form of memorising.

    • Excellent point Chris, and the perfect riposte to Monsieur Naughton! Of course writing is the ultimate memory prosthesis.

      I wish I’d thought of that when I was writing the article. ;-)

  16. Chris makes an interesting point here about external memory devices being a permanent record. But are they? Or at least, are the digital ones we take so much for granted? ‘Peak Everything’ author Richard Heinberg raised a critically important issue in an article where he asked ‘How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?’

    http://heinberg.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/209-our-evanescent-culture-and-the-awesome-duty-of-librarians/

    ‘Preservation of digitized knowledge can become a problem simply because of obsolescence. Think of the billions of floppy disks manufactured and encoded during the years between 1980 and 2000: few of us still have working computers capable of retrieving the data on those disks. But this is hardly the worldwide information system’s point of greatest vulnerability.

    Ultimately the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets—or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever…’

    So given the warnings about peak oil/energy transition and humanity having created an ‘energy bubble’ (ie. that fossil fuel replacements will simply not be able to sustain the current scale of the human enterprise), then maybe it will be more important to have a good memory! And perhaps, a memory filled with practical skills – like how to make stuff and grow food – as well as theoretical knowledge.

    • Agreed the digital records will only last as long as the lights are on. But if the lights go out and stay out, it’s pretty well Game Over for civilization this time round. I guess it’s not so good for the archaeologists of the future. They’ll contemplate the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome… and a lot of landfills overflowing with hard-drives and printer cartridges.

  17. While it clearly isn’t that important to know the capital of Uganda, some other things really make people look dumb – e.g. not knowing what a particular monument in their own town or city represents, not being sure what river is flowing nearby etc.

    So, I wouldn’t really cut that much slacks to new generations; but instead I’d advocate on all schools to apply some new studying methods, as these times and information overlflow cannot be digested the same way by each person dealing with them.

    And thanks for the book recommendation. I believe this can be useful even to us with good memory!

  18. Hi Mark,

    To me there’s a big distinction between knowing something and regurgitation of facts. (I’m not a fan of trivia games at all.)

    Of course, memorization is important for the fundamentals. That’s stuff you end up using everyday. But beyond that I’m not too interested.

    I can remember back in the high school days, (I guess the memory still works), finding it ridiculous that the “smart” people couldn’t do anything with the facts they had memorized. For me it’s more important to take ownership of information.

    Now when I’m wearing my actor’s hat, I do need to memorize lines. But again, that really comes down to internalizing and really understanding what’s happening. As I’m sure you understand with poetry being more the merely reciting words.

    As for tips on improving memory, in college I happen on a cassette course called mega memory. As a goof I figured I give it a try. That year I got all A’s using the techniques.

    The biggest takeaway was, do not take notes. But record the class so you could be present. Listen.

    Then after you would go back and listen to the class at a higher speed and stop it when you would need to write a note. But the note would be very brief one word most times. You would then create mental triggers to remember what you wrote.

    All if this seems time consuming, but in fact it was the opposite.

    Instead of cramming all night before exams, I could actually take out the notes and look at them for 10 to 15 minutes and I knew everything. It was pretty cool.

    But alas, it was not true ownership of knowledge. But merely remembering facts. That’s not nearly as fun as really understanding something.

    I do still use some of the techniques to remember things like account numbers and such.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks Dave, that sounds a really interesting system. It does sound a bit fiddly/time-consuming, but I’ll take your word that it’s not! And can definitely see how it would work.

  19. Hey Mark this article reminded me of the few summers I wasted as a child when my dad forced me to memorize the times tables. I couldn’t go out and play till I could recite my 2-12 times tables back wards and forwards.

    I felt like some thing was wrong with me and that I was not a smart kid. As I was the only child in the house that never learned it completely. I use to like to read novels and comics but I remember one year being forced to read the dictionary. ( That was real torture my dad was not a fan of fiction books. I would never put a child through that) I know my dad really meant well but he was an electronics major dam near a human computer.

    Great article I think having a decent memory is important but I realize that it does not make a man or woman smarter than a person who’s memory isn’t so good.

    • Yeah, times tables were never my favourite bit of school. On the other hand, I found spelling tests very easy. Looking back, I’d just stumbled upon a good approach to memorising words (I used a lot of the principles Buzan writes about) but wasn’t using it for numbers.

      Hindsight’s always 20-20 eh? :-)

  20. I’m a 15 year old girl who has a very hard time remembering things, I’m NOT joking either, and the weird thing is my brothers and sisters whom ages are 25, 24, 19, 19, 19, and 18 remember things better than I do, I do NOT know why I CAN’T remember much at only 15 but I forget stuff easily, there are a couple of things I remember from when I was under 15, and there’s even major events in my life that I do NOT remember like apparently when I was 11 I was the jr.brides maid in one of my couisn’s wedding and I do NOT remember being there or in that wedding at age 11, I hardly remember the trip I took to Colorado when I was 13 to visit my cousin out there, there’s probably more things I forget than I remember and I DUNNO why.

  21. nigel bray says:

    well were do i start short memory very bad long memory alot worse being married 23 years i told wife last year she said how do you cope i said am a great bull sh@ter if i dont some think very day i forget

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