Sunday, February 20, 2011

On memory.

I read an article today in the New York Times Magazine, entitled "Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: How I trained my brain and became a world-class memory athlete."

The journalist's intentioned story on the U.S. Memory Championships - a series of grueling "events" in memorization administered to a highly-trained group of memory "athletes" - later turned into a participatory self-experiment. The result is a fascinating and introspective take on not only how to sharpen one's abilities to memorize, but also why it is so important that we retain these skills, even in the face of technological conveniences that preclude the necessity to do so.

Occasionally there are those articles that, as I read, I find myself muttering "yes" and "yes" under my breath, and this was one of those. Specifically, this point:
Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. I always find looking up at my shelves, at the books that have drained so many of my waking hours, to be a dispiriting experience. There are books up there that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.

Increasingly in the past several years, I have fought to balance my desire to read about as many subjects as possible, with the capacity of my brain to contain it all. I liken the struggle to a never-ending treadmill of information, and I'm always on the brink of falling off from not being able to keep pace.

One thing that I've always been self-conscious about is my memory, and the speed at which I retain information. My closest friends are characterized by being both extremely bright and very well-read (no, these are not synonymous), and always seem to blaze through the information that met them. I wouldn't call it an inferiority complex, but I did envy the ease with which they seemed to read something once, and still be able to discuss it at length months later. It always seemed to take me more time and more repetition to knock things into my noggin, and the consequence of that was feeling like I knew so little about anything.

My first response to these frustrations, a year or two into college, was to increase the volume of my reading. I filled my RSS feed with science blogs, magazine feeds, news feeds, Boing Boing, etc. I spent considerable time and effort poring over websites and articles, in this obsessive quest for all-around knowledge. It took me another year or two to realize that my plan was counterproductive. The good result was that I became interested in many subjects that I'm still fascinated by - for example, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, linguistics, sustainable agriculture - but the serious downside was that I stretched myself out too thin and didn't feel much more conversant about anything than before.

What I had been missing, just as the author of the article pointed out, was intensity of reading. The act of reading a book slowly and learning its contents carefully and thoughtfully, can never be substituted by an attempt to read everything that's published on the internet. It is still important for me to be well-informed on many subjects, but I had been going about it the wrong way.

In the past year, I've come to fully realize the relative efficacy of reading books or good magazines in terms of gaining and retaining knowledge, and have learned how not to be distracted by the overwhelming glut of information online, most of which is useless anyway. Sometimes, I still have lapses of feeling suddenly like I don't know a damn thing, and then feel overwhelmed by all this available knowledge on the internet that I should be constantly feeding to myself. But it is slowly getting easier, and importantly so, because my reading for grad school is necessarily intense and focused. Now, when I'm not reading papers, I have limited reading time for other subjects, and it is important that I learn how to make that time count. (I think that if grad school meant I didn't have time to read about anything other than statistical theory, I would entirely cease to be myself.)

What does this all this have to do with memory?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my memory in the context of retaining the things I read, but as a whole, I think the importance of exercising one's memory is increasingly undervalued in today's world. We don't have to memorize directions anymore - we have GPS devices. No need to memorize a shopping list, or a name or address, or the guitarist in that band, or the setting of that novel. These seem like trivial matters, but trivial matters collectively make up an enormous part of our everyday lives, and for most of these things, we depend on either the internet or other technological tools to do it for us. Memory, just like any other skill, is refined by practice and repetition. To me, dulling our abilities to mentally recall and reproduce would be dulling something that is fundamental to the human experience.

1 comment:

Stacy said...

Nice post! I have one of the worst memories known to man! I'm that person who takes a test and then when I get it back two weeks later, doesn't even know what I did. But you're right, it's trainable. When I was a waitress, memorizing people's drink orders became easy over time. And in Morocco (where you have no GPS option) I developed a good memory for landmarks and was able *usually* to get to a place by memory after the first time. So while I say my memory is bad, in general, by necessity sometimes its good.