On memory and memorisation

Ben Casnocha has an interesting post where he asks how useful an unusual memory is in the real world. He says his sense is that it is “not very much — at least beyond a base level of ability“. His argument mostly relies on the use of readily-available tools such as index cards, and technology such as putting all numbers on PDAs and mobile phones instead of memorising them. He mentions social situations as a possible exception where a good memory may be helpful.

He writes a good post but his view is a tad narrow.

Firstly, there is a lot of life – or ‘real world’ – before, after and beyond meetings and presentations. It is immensely helpful in building relationships if one can remember something tangential from a business meeting and then bring it up in a social context, say, at drinks after a big day of presentations. This is especially useful in cultures and contexts where one is trying to break through as an outsider. When I worked in business development in Switzerland, my excellent memory was an asset. Men – always men – whom I met in the course of my business meetings were not used to seeing non-white women in sales roles. They were a bit disarmed and mentioned things about their organisations or themselves. Later, as I was invited to join them for a cup of coffee, or if I met them in industry expos, these non-business tidbits were very useful in making instant connection again, even if we had not done yet any revenue-making business together.

Secondly not all tools – flash cards, notes etc – can be used in all situations. Back to social interactions then, where a sharp memory and eye for detail is a great asset! Bill Clinton is always described as charismatic and compassionate by all who have met him. The reason is not just that he is great at eye contact or his body language is open and disarming. The main reason is that he has a phenomenal memory for detail. At my golf club in Scotland, he is a member. The caddies, the butlers and the PGA certified coaches have never gotten over the fact that he remembers – from one meeting to another, which may be months or a year or more apart – details about people and their families. He would ask after a butler’s ill mother’s health. He would ask about people’s pregnant wives and their babies. He remembers their names. Naturally he is the club member they most clamour to serve! Is that any surprise? Now as far as I know he does not whip out any notes or flash cards. Not in his relaxation period at the golf club. Not in his or his wife’s election campaigns. He has a great deal of empathy and a phenomenal, enviable memory. Both serve him well.

Thirdly, yes, Ben is correct in observing that older people rely more on memory than on technology. The thing is it is not just older people. Nearly all people with good memories rely on them and draw upon them constantly. Then it becomes a self-perpetuating spiral of virtue. There may be more reasons for this than just how we see and use technology. A good memory is handy in many situations. Some years ago, I served as a research fellow at MIT, for which I had just 3 weeks to arrange my J1 visa. The form requires a lot of detail such as addresses one has lived at, going back many years. In my case this also meant many cities across continents and countries. The form also asks questions about parents and their current addresses. Where a parent is no more, they want to know the last address. And I remembered – from age 4 – the last address where my mother lived before dying. I did not have to ask my father. I relied on my memory. When I cross-checked with Papa, he confirmed I was right, without ever consulting a notebook.

Last but not the least, and sadly enough, a memory is one of the most reliable proxy measures for ageing. A mobile phone which allows you to find any friend’s phone number instantly will hide the slow scourge of dementia for years before it is found. But when you cannot recall which friend you intended to call, no mobile phone can help you.

Most fundamentally, Ben confuses a good memory with memorisation. One is a gift that can be made better with constant use, the other a tool requiring much practice.

The latter – memorisation and its tricks – can be learnt by any. Many people make a living teaching people tricks, mnemonics and other means of memorising things. Why is it that people pay to learn these tricks? Because remembering the right things at the right time without fumbling through PDAs or note cards is still at a premium. In both social and business contexts.

The former – a good memory – is something that one is born with. One can better it with constant usage, just like some weight training will ensure one’s triceps never become bingo wings. But it is a fundamental and complex trait, that requires and signals many other characteristics in a person that human beings in social and business interactions prize: empathy, a genuine interest in people, the ability to make connections and an ability to remember their name and address them by it.

%d bloggers like this: