Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Never Memorize Anything Ever Again

                Scientists have found no measurable limit to the amount of information our brains can store.  If you had the time, you could sit down and memorize every event in human history that was ever recorded.  In fact, you've probably memorized millions upon millions of bits of information over your lifetime already.  "Yes, but I've forgotten most of them," you might be saying, but that isn't really true.  When it comes to our long-term memory, the issue is not storage-- that is to say, your brain doesn't replace old information with new; rather, it files it all away.  "Forgetting" happens when you have trouble finding the right filing cabinet.  If you want to be a good rememberer, learn to organize your memories, so you won't have trouble pulling the files you need when you need them.  One way that people do this is by associating information they don't want to forget with an extremely familiar environment-- one's house, for example.  That's where the idea of a "mind palace" comes from (for all of you Sherlock fans); Holmes is able to recall anything and everything at the snap of a finger because he's organized all of the information that he thinks he will need in a palace within his mind, rather than shoving it all into random filing cabinets as many of us tend to.  Now, imagine that you had a mind palace of your very own and that, in a moment's time, you could call to mind anything that you wanted to know in any given instance.  It's a truly awesome idea, isn't it?  Luckily for you, you do have such a palace, yet you often refuse to open its doors.

                Your elementary school teachers often told you to "memorize your times tables."  I don't regret ignoring them.  Why would you waste your time doing that when the only time you don't have a calculator within arm's reach is when you're in the shower?  They also probably made you memorize the fifty states and where they were located on a U.S. map.  I could label Virginia, Florida, California, and Texas, but beyond that is beyond me, and that has never been an issue.  Why not?  Because I carry a map of the entire world in my pocket.  I know that George Washington was our first president, but I couldn't say with conviction who came right after him.  Don't worry, though; if I ever need to know, I'll just check the history book that sits on my bedside table every night while I sleep.  I find the memorization of factual information that's easily and always accessible to be a pointless exercise and a waste of time, especially when most of what we memorize just gets lost in our records. 

                The internet has done us the favor of taking more information than any individual could ever have the motivation or time to collect and organizing it into a gigantic, practically infinite library.  This library is so enormous that no one person could possibly crack every cover it holds, yet so small that it fits in your hand.  The power that the internet gives anyone with access to it is immeasurable in this "information age."  With the help of a computer, phone, or tablet, you have the ability to learn whatever you want to, see anything that words can describe, and share any information you think the world should know-- what a profound idea.  Why debate whether the winter solstice is on the 20th or the 21st of December when you can just look on Wikipedia?  Why bother your professor after the lecture for clarification on how to solve trigonometric integrals when you can just watch a tutorial on Youtube?  Why ask someone how to use an app or change your settings when you could find a more clear and concise answer in just a few seconds via a Google search?  Along the same vein, why memorize your times tables, states, or presidents when you could just look it up whenever you need to know?

                Yes, I'm aware that if everyone was as ignorant as I am, we would not have the stores of information that we do, and I'm aware that a foundation is necessary in order to build an informational structure.  I'm not saying that schools should do away with facts and focus solely on problem-solving, but when you're honed in on the "what" rather than the "why" and the "how," it should come as no surprise when college and even high school seem extremely challenging to the average student.  Memorizing one's times tables does not contribute to an understanding of mathematics, just like the ability to label fifty states on a map won't help you comprehend the intricacies of social interaction.  We would all be better off if we stopped worrying about the right answer and concentrated instead on how to get to it.  This contrast was illustrated to me during my freshman year at William and Mary by my Physics and Calculus classes.  In Calculus, everyone, including the professor, seemed to put more stock in answer than the process that got you there; one arithmetic error along the way would lead to a seven-point deduction on a ten-point problem.  In Physics, your answer could be off by a factor of a hundred, and the professor would deduct two or three points on a question worth twenty-five.  Why?  Because the Griff (Professor Griffioen) didn't particularly care if you put all of the numbers into your calculator just so; he was more concerned about whether you knew what you were doing with the variables.  Furthermore, formula sheets were found only in my Physics classes; while this is likely due to the sheer number of equations that we would have had to memorize for each test, I believe that it speaks to a bigger idea: memorization is pointless.  Like I said before, there will never be a time in the workplace when I will need and won't have access to Maxwell's Equations.  I wasted hours memorizing the derivatives and integrals of "common" functions for my Calculus class, hours that I could have spent mastering the actual mathematics that I was supposed to be learning.  The overemphasis of mindless details is destructive in a world in which a computer program will, every time, crank out the correct numbers if given the correct instructions. 

                In an age in which a new, bleeding-edge smart phone is released every six months, time is our most valuable resource.  Technologically, we're advancing at a breakneck pace, and we don't have time to sit down and memorize a bunch of facts that someone else has already made easily accessible to us.  There may be no limit to the amount of information our brains can hold, but there is a limit to the amount of time we have to use that information, so why not utilize the tools at our disposal to save ourselves the trouble of committing to memory countless things that we already have the ability to pull from storage at any given moment.  Let "the cloud" be your memory and the internet be your mind palace, and don't memorize anything ever again; you'll just be wasting your time.