General 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
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
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.