Many years ago, long after my parents got cell phones, they decided to get rid of their land-line. Strangely, it seems near impossible for me to forget the old number to that land-line (in case you want me to prove my claim, it was: 7-1-9-5-3-1-6-3-1-7). As a kid, I knew all of my friends telephone numbers by heart too (don’t worry, I won’t bore you by listing them all here). How many telephone numbers of important people in your life do you have memorized today? If you’re anything like me, the answer is, sadly, not many.
This anecdote is a microcosm for an interesting culture phenomenon that has been occurring for quite some time, i.e, we don’t seem to value memory in today’s society as much as we have in the past. Is this a mistake? In his witty and entertaining book, Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer sets out to answer this question and similar tangential questions by immersing himself in an eccentric sub-culture of competitive memorizers. The book is, at least in part, about this esoteric pursuit of becoming the U.S. memory champion and partly about the cultural implications of outsourcing our memory.
Credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, the “memory palace” is the key method still used by today’s memory champions. It involves remembering sequences of words or numbers by imagining objects placed around a physical setting you a very familiar with, e.g., your home. Foer elaborates on why this method works. “We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.”
At one point in the book, Foer states: “If the point of reading were simply to retain knowledge, it would probably be the single least efficient activity I engage in.” I found this to be true for myself as well, although I quickly reassured myself that I would never hope or want the ability to remember everything I read. Rather, if given a special talent involving reading, I would desperately hope to retain only the knowledge that could be broadly classified as wisdom. In other words, only the important stuff.
Many people in modern society, however, seem to believe that all knowledge is created equal and value quantity of reading over quality. I think this is a mistake. Foer describes it beautifully.
Experts see the world differently. They notice things that nonexperts don’t see. They home in on the information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways.
I would emphasize that experts must focus on the quality of the information and must be able to sniff out the irrelevant and the trivial. Memory is, in a word, at the origin of all culture. Foer explains it as follows: “Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their own memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids–a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.” Even Socrates understood the importance of memory; he worried that the very invention of writing would lead the culture down a path of intellectual and moral decay. I obviously don’t necessarily believe this to be true (who knew Socrates was a technophobe?). I think it’s fair, however, to assume that throughout history, both recent and ancient, having a good memory has been at the crux of being intelligent. Foer elaborates on this point beautifully, “Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.” I would strongly argue that it’s a necessary (although not sufficient) quality of being intelligent, but I’ll try to avoid any further digressions on that point. There is, however, an important Socratic question that the book makes you ponder: Is the unremembered life worth living?
At one point in the book Foer makes a compelling argument for embracing novelty and randomness. He writes, “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.” Although I feel somewhat ambivalent towards the statement due to its logical implications, I do, however, agree with the point at large that I assume he was trying to make. Foer goes on to clarify, “Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.” As such, this bolsters the argument that new experiences and visiting new locations can help us (in moderation of course) practice retaining information and making sense of more of the world, which in turn helps us feel psychologically as if we’ve lived a longer life. This meshes with one of my deep held life philosophies about exposing yourself to randomness in both activities and in culture.
The main claim against the need for memory in today’s society is, I think, that the economics of the situation have changed. Why bother to remember anything anymore when you can just outsource your memory to digital technologies? In other words, with technologies like Google we can quickly reference knowledge online, which has made storing knowledge in our head more relatively costly than storing it on the Web. I count this as another strike against thinking like an economist for two reasons:
1) “Who we are and what we do is fundamentally a function of what we remember.”
2) “You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, your can’t memorize without learning.”
It’s interesting to note that if not being able to remember enough is a problem, so is being able to remember too much. What happens if you can’t distinguish between the trivial and the important? As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his short story “Funes the Memorious”, “To think is to forget.” It all comes down to the debate around knowledge. We are inundated and bombarded with information all the time. What a nightmare it would be if we weren’t able to forget false knowledge claims and all of the other garbage that goes into our minds.
In the end, I was reminded of a very important lesson: “When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.” Our perception of the world, and consequently how we engage with it, is merely a product of what and how we remember. Besides, Foer adds, “what I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorise, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”