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Monday, 21 March 2011

Does Memory Matter?

Does Memory matter? Should students ever memorize anything?
Before mass literacy became the norm, people relied entirely on their memories for information. Teachers had to lecture and “teach,” and students had to memorize information because that was how all information was preserved and transmitted. Obviously, with the emergence of writing and reading, people became far less reliant on the spoken word for information, for stories, for ideas. People didn’t have to remember things anymore because they could write them down and then refer to the written word.
 In his travel book Nine Lives, William Dalrymple examines the remnants of the oral tradition in India today and then asserts that literacy kills the oral tradition. When people become literate, they lose their ability (or inclination? Or need?) to memorize and recite thousands of verses of poetry that have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Similarly, the cognitive psychologist Maryanne Wolf, in her book Proust and Squid: The Science and Story of the Reading Brain, describes Socrates' fears as he watched the world around him transfom from an oral society to a literate one. Among other fears, Socrates worried that a literate world would suffer from memory loss. People would begin relying on the written word, and in the process, they would lose their ability to memorize and remember.
When the world begins to change in revolutionary ways, much is gained, but much is also lost. Clearly, the written world brought tremendous benefits to our societies. It enabled us to communicate across distance and time. It allowed us access to far more information than we could ever commit to memory. And it made the preservation and the acquisition of knowledge much easier. It also made knowledge far more accessible, and thereby democratized knowledge in ways unheard of before. However, a newly literate world also saw the loss of a whole way of life. The written word doesn’t have the same life and vibrancy as the spoken word does. When one speaks, one communicates through language but also through tone, intonation, gesture, and expression. There is something alive and warm about listening to a story or watching a play.  There is a social element to the spoken word and the oral tradition that is lost when one engages in the solitary pleasure of a book. And of course, as so many thinkers and writers assert, when one begins to read and write, one stops committing words to memory.
I watched my own son “lose” his ability to memorize whole books as he became acquainted with the written word. As a preliterate toddler, he memorized  his storybooks word for word because he still had to rely on his memory to access information and stories.  Of course, at the time, I was convinced that he was a genius, but after a little research on the subject, I realized that this was very normal toddler behaviour. However,as he slowly and painstakingly became literate, he no longer recited and remembered every word in his books. He relied much less on his memory, and as a result, his capacity to memorize seems to have rusted over time.  Now, as a literate person, he can just look at the book and read the words; he doesn’t need to remember his books.
Does research support this idea that literacy kills or harms our memory? Apparently not. The only study I’ve encountered so far is by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, who claims that the opposite is true. In his book Reading in the Brain, he cites a variety of experiments that he performed on literate and illiterate women in Portugal and concludes that the literate people had better memories. However, while there is no scientific evidence to suggest that literacy harms our ability to remember, there is tremendous evidence that it eliminates our need to remember. Writing simply removes the necessity of memorizing.
Which leads me to my next point: if literacy eliminates the need for memory, then what does technology do? With all our gadgets – laptops, blackberries, cell phones, ipods, and iphones – do we ever need to remember anything? When I teach now, I can look up pretty much anything instantaneously.  As a kid, I used to remember people’s phone numbers, but now, there is no real need for me to do this. It’s faster for me to retrieve a number from my cell phone contact list than it is for me to retrieve the number from my memory. From phone numbers to historical dates to poems to mathematical formulae: the answers are all a click away. And with the assurance that all this material exists outside us, safely stored in words and numbers on our various gadgets, we don’t have to bother to remember anything. So,  in a world where we are all electronically connected all the time, is memory totally and utterly redundant? We have our electronic memories, so do we need our human memories at all?
With this huge shift from a print based world to an electronic world, we are even less reliant on our memories than we used to be. So should educators make students memorize anything? Is there any value in memorizing a poem? Is there any value in memorizing historical dates and scientific facts? We still make students do this kind of work on a routine basis. Kids have to memorize and recite poems and Shakespeare speeches. They have to memorize historical information and scientific facts.  Are there benefits to committing information to memory? Should we be asking kids to remember things for “closed-book tests and exams” or should all our assessments be open book and open laptop assessments? What is the connection between memorizing and learning? Does an English student benefit from memorizing a beautiful poem? Perhaps. I’m not really sure. I know that I ask my students to memorize very little. They are always allowed to use their books and their computers for assignments, tests, projects, and presentations. Yet, this is obviously a huge shift in education. For millennia, educators have demanded that students commit vast quantities of information to memory. But has memory now become an obsolete tool of the past?


  1. We still need to memorize a vast amount of knowledge to come up with new and creative insights. If a heart surgeon doesn't memorize knowledge, no amount of technological help will enable hom/her to perform a surgery successfully. This is true for all professions.

    1. True. Infact, there's a lot of research to show that reading comprehension is significantly increased when a person has background information/context relevant to what they're reading. In other words, even in a simple task like reading the newspaper, our knowledge base helps us significantly. So yes, teaching content and getting children to memorize core content is still very important.
      This is an interesting counter argument to the current belief in many progressive schools that skills are far more important than content (information). Most teachers I've worked with seem to believe that content is not particularly important because we have google. (Why memorize information when you can just look it up? why memorize your times tables when you have a calculator?) They believe, however, that skills such as finding the right information, evaluating information, and analyzing information are crucial. But I think that we need both: skills and content, and schools have to teach both. So perhaps the answer to my final question is no. Memory is not an obsolete tool of the past. It's still relevant and useful.

  2. I just finished reading a really interesting book, The Shallows, by Nick Carr. In the book, he discusses the cognitive effects of outsourcing memory to machines. It's a fascinating discussion; Carr asserts that memory is absolutely crucial to thinking. He writes that, "scientific evidence suggests that as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future. We don't constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence." The science he shares and discusses shows how memory consolidation works at a neuronal level, and it is really interesting.
    So to go back to the question of how much educators should stress memorization: clearly, we cannot give up on our human memories. We may have google, but we still need to learn and remember. And perhaps learning and remembering/memory are far more tightly linked than contemporary educators believe.