Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Towards Healthy Memory

For the Ancient Greeks, memory was a highly prized skill, and a crucial faculty of the mind. Orators, poets, performers, lawyers and philosophers developed astonishing powers of memory. Their capacity for recall was prodigious. Because their culture valued orality, and the authenticity of speech as direct communication, memeory was a key skill. In a sense, the devaluation of the role of memory could be deemed to be progressive. As writing progressed the key role of memory became less significant. You did not have to remember everything if the answer was in a book, or indeed if it had been recorded acccurately somewhere, in some form.

Nonetheless, memory work has often been perceived as a necessary regime and a desirable discipline for character formation and spiritual rectitude. Medieval monks and renaissance scholars devised memory systems to help them to meditate on the circles of Hell, or to focus on aspects of theology; or simply to remember the sacred texts. Learning to recite the Koran, as the divine word incarnate, remains a significant exercise in the modern world.

In the nineteenth, and most of the twentieth century, rote learning was a key feature of the educational system, from infancy through to University. And indeed memory plays a vital function in many areas of the sciences, medicine, and law. Music and sport also require skill development in motor function by learned memory repetitions. So memory-based work and memory related tests and exams continue to play a key key role in education.

Yet, in our modern culture everything is simulated and digitised. Since everything is recorded in all its abundance and plenitude is there any need to practise the art of recall? Is our affection for rote learning rather than creative skills not rather sentimental and nostalgic? Or perhaps we practise memory discipline as a form of punishment? In Great Britain (UK) the government has recently proposed that children should be able to recite poems from memory!

When was the last time that you remembered anything as simple as a telephone number? Before the advent of mobiles and cellphones we often knew many numbers by heart. Nowadays you have difficulty recalling your own number, let alone other people's. Under pressure, we don't have time to learn phone numbers, and we don't feel guilt about this loss, either!

If we need to find something out, or check some fact, a quick google search provides all the answers. So is the faculty of memory, once so prized, now over-rated?

First, several studies in psychology have pointed to a correlation between short term memory and performance in intelligence tests. These tests in turn play a significant role in some systems of selective education, and in assessments for some professional jobs. So cultivating your short term memory may support and enhance your career progression, and your future prosperity.

Second, memory competence is essential to social interaction. It's quite difficult to have a meaningful dialogue if you can't remember what was said several minutes ago. Forgetfulness in this regard may give the impression that your are not listening to the other person(s). Poor listening and social engagement skills may even lead in turn to a decrease in emotional well being, depression and loneliness.

Third, strong memory of component parts of a project or concept may support the speed and effectiveness with which you deal with larger and more complex issues and problems. Again there is both an emotional and intellectual component in such cases. Feeling overwhelmed is a common feeling when faced with larger problems that you are unable to break down into their component parts.

Fourth, ineffective memory and high stress appear to be inter-related. Stress actually decreases brain function and impairs memory. So poor memory may mean that you have stress issues that require urgent attention. Conversely, decreasing stress where possible may help your memory (and other brain functions) to flourish. A characteristic example of stress impacting on effective memorisation and recall is exam revision that has been poorly planned. Learninbg is very ineffective if you are anxious. Also risky is excessive pressure from your family or from your school. You might even been putting yourself under too much pressure to succeed and actually hampering your performance as a result.

Fifth, memory is related to confidence. Recalling people's names is an obvious example of a practical use of memory skills to enhance social effectiveness. Also, relatedly, if you consistently tell yourself that you have poor memory skills, you will have weaker memory skills. Just being positive about your memory will help to re-enforce it. Memory is fundamental to finding links and connections. It thrives on a world that is more joined up, inter-personal and interactive.

Sixth, memory can be understood at a deep level in relation to our ongoing sense of self, and our construction of our identity. In this case memory is far more complex than we perceive. In fact we are constantly shaping our memories, and being re-shaped by them, in a remarkably imperfect fashion.

Accordingly, Kathryn Hughes's recent review of  Charles Fernyhough's new book eloquently noted that

"Every act of remembering is an act of creation, a confabulation stitched together from an array of different cues. We know this, really, when we get into a muddle over whether we actually recall an incident from childhood or whether we've simply been told about it or seen a photo."

It appears that the memory process engages multiple parts of the brain, and it is both intellectual and emotional. Indeed, smells and sounds, rhythms and spatial awarenss are are contributory factors in effective use of our memory.

The memory is multi-sensory but it is also fundamentally flawed and open to radical mis-remembering. This realisation perhaps carries important lessons for how we should proceed to work on improved memory function, and in the evaluation of the efficacy of the strategies employed. Clearly, we need to rethink the role of memory in education, and its significance in our lives.

At one extreme, perfect memory recall is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this case, we are haunted, or rather terrorised, by traumatic memories that we are unable to delete, or move away from. In fact, our brains are not like computers that simply delete files, or overwrite them! The fact that many memories are allowed to fade and recede - often imperceptibly over time - is crucial to the healthy process of grieving.

 The key point is that our memory skills are part of our humanity, rather than just bits of data being processed by a supercomputer.

So the lessons are that to cultivate your memory is healthy, but that to wish for total recall is not. Leave that to science fiction and to horror.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Further reading

For and Against Memorizing Poetry

63 Tips for More Effective Memory and Recall of Quotations, Texts and Speeches. Here

Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough 

- reviewed in The Guardian and in The Daily Telegraph.

"Memory is an essential part of who we are. But what is a memory, and how do we remember? A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: rather than possessing a particular memory from our past, we construct it anew each time we are called upon to remember. Remembering is an act of narrative as much as it is the product of a neurological process. Pieces of Light illuminates this theory through a collection of human stories, each illustrating a facet of memory's complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions. Drawing on the latest research, case studies and personal experience, Charles Fernyhough delves into the memories of trauma victims and amnesiacs; and of the very young and very old - visiting medieval memoria and scent-museums along the way. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, Pieces of Light blends science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, to illuminate the way we remember and forget." - Amazon.  

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

"Delete looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we've searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.
In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget--the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that's facilitating the end of forgetting--digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software--and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it's outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won't let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can't help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution--expiration dates on information--that may." - Amazon