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.

30 thoughts on “On memory and memorisation

  1. I agree, a good memory is a great asset, in every sense and in every situation! I mean if a co-worker tells you something, the thing is to file it away…and out it comes at an opportune moment! these are the kind of things that makes one rise up the ladder of success…a good memory can impress people too…
    a good memory can be terrifying tool…!
    I have no idea why anyone should feel it’s not important.
    I read Ben’s post. I think he is talking of something else. About mugging up things, rote learning and the like. Unless he was talking of some magical ability, you know the kind that some exceptional people have, like remembering huge numbers and the like.

  2. Very interesting read!
    A couple of lines surprised me in that you would normally have chosen more readable sentences.
    Ex: “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.”
    πŸ™‚

  3. I agree, a good memory is a great asset, in every sense and in every situation! I mean if a co-worker tells you something, the thing is to file it away…and out it comes at an opportune moment! these are the kind of things that makes one rise up the ladder of success…a good memory can impress people too…
    a good memory can be terrifying tool…!
    I have no idea why anyone should feel it’s not important.
    I read Ben’s post. I think he is talking of something else. About mugging up things, rote learning and the like. Unless he was talking of some magical ability, you know the kind that some exceptional people have, like remembering huge numbers and the like.

  4. Very interesting read!
    A couple of lines surprised me in that you would normally have chosen more readable sentences.
    Ex: “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.”
    πŸ™‚

  5. @ Nita: Thanks. I think Ben’s post is mixed and his point about rote learning is challenged in the comments section by a reader ‘Andromeda’.

    For my sins, I remember thousands of phone numbers, addresses, pin codes, friends’ phone numbers, birthdays, their addresses etc. Not nice sometimes. Useful at other times.

    @ Rambodoc: Sorry! I wrote the post in about 10 minutes. It is crunch time for me and I would rather write something than go awol for a few days.. πŸ™ Will edit later.

    Thanks for your support πŸ™‚

  6. @ Nita: Thanks. I think Ben’s post is mixed and his point about rote learning is challenged in the comments section by a reader ‘Andromeda’.

    For my sins, I remember thousands of phone numbers, addresses, pin codes, friends’ phone numbers, birthdays, their addresses etc. Not nice sometimes. Useful at other times.

    @ Rambodoc: Sorry! I wrote the post in about 10 minutes. It is crunch time for me and I would rather write something than go awol for a few days.. πŸ™ Will edit later.

    Thanks for your support πŸ™‚

  7. VBR: Thanks.

    But alas, I am a very sophisticated robot-cyborg πŸ˜‰ I am being tested by a Japanese lab and I am also good at cooking and ironing.

    It seems I should report to my masters that some human beings are finding me inspiring. My creators would be very pleased.

    Jokes apart, thanks for your kind words.

  8. VBR: Thanks.

    But alas, I am a very sophisticated robot-cyborg πŸ˜‰ I am being tested by a Japanese lab and I am also good at cooking and ironing.

    It seems I should report to my masters that some human beings are finding me inspiring. My creators would be very pleased.

    Jokes apart, thanks for your kind words.

  9. VBR: Thanks!

    Now I am scratching my head to find where my background might have appeared (except some references in the post perhaps) πŸ™

    Sorry, I am a bit distracted by my deadline…

    Thanks for your kind words.

  10. VBR: Thanks!

    Now I am scratching my head to find where my background might have appeared (except some references in the post perhaps) πŸ™

    Sorry, I am a bit distracted by my deadline…

    Thanks for your kind words.

  11. Yup. Talk to any successful person in marketing or politics to see how those who turn their gift of memory into a useful tool of memorization swear by it. Sharad Pawar is as famously cited as Bill Clinton in this aspect.

  12. Yup. Talk to any successful person in marketing or politics to see how those who turn their gift of memory into a useful tool of memorization swear by it. Sharad Pawar is as famously cited as Bill Clinton in this aspect.

  13. I have a friend who has an excellent memory for every book she reads, and she’s a voracious reader. She remembers character names, plot lines, everything. I love to talk to her about literature, because she always entertains.

    To have a good memory, one must pay attention. Often peeple, myself included, are lost in their own world of internal discourse. For me, improving my memory is a matter of focus.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  14. I have a friend who has an excellent memory for every book she reads, and she’s a voracious reader. She remembers character names, plot lines, everything. I love to talk to her about literature, because she always entertains.

    To have a good memory, one must pay attention. Often peeple, myself included, are lost in their own world of internal discourse. For me, improving my memory is a matter of focus.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  15. Mariacristina: Thanks for your note and I am pleased you like the article.

    Your view echoes my sentiment that a good memory indicates many other things we prize: “empathy, a genuine interest in people, the ability to make connections and an ability to remember their name and address them by it“.

    Ben Casnocha, whose article inspired my post, is 19 years old. I am sure ageing is far from his mind as I imagine his parents are not into retirement yet. But for older persons, with our parents ageing, the role of memory as a proxy measure of fitness is crucial.

    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.

    Thanks for reading.

  16. Mariacristina: Thanks for your note and I am pleased you like the article.

    Your view echoes my sentiment that a good memory indicates many other things we prize: “empathy, a genuine interest in people, the ability to make connections and an ability to remember their name and address them by it“.

    Ben Casnocha, whose article inspired my post, is 19 years old. I am sure ageing is far from his mind as I imagine his parents are not into retirement yet. But for older persons, with our parents ageing, the role of memory as a proxy measure of fitness is crucial.

    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.

    Thanks for reading.

  17. Very interesting post..I can see how having a good memory would be useful in social situations. Alas, the kind of memory you are talking about is a gift that people are simply born with, not a result of years of education in India or a genetic predisposition to remember trivia and verse. My post was a reference to the latter as I never had the former skill to begin with! I envy people who do though…life is a lot easier for them.

    I once questioned a good friend on his capacity to remember names, faces, details a la Bill Clinton and he replied it was because he was so interested in people. I wonder what that says about social memory-challenged people like me!

  18. Very interesting post..I can see how having a good memory would be useful in social situations. Alas, the kind of memory you are talking about is a gift that people are simply born with, not a result of years of education in India or a genetic predisposition to remember trivia and verse. My post was a reference to the latter as I never had the former skill to begin with! I envy people who do though…life is a lot easier for them.

    I once questioned a good friend on his capacity to remember names, faces, details a la Bill Clinton and he replied it was because he was so interested in people. I wonder what that says about social memory-challenged people like me!

  19. Vidya:

    Thanks for your note:

    You say: “Alas, the kind of memory you are talking about is a gift that people are simply born with, not a result of years of education in India or a genetic predisposition to remember trivia and verse.

    I think even remembering trivia and verse requires some innate ability to remember things. Because think of the flip side! There is plenty of stuff we have forgotten which suggests that our memory is selective.

    Further even those with the greatest memories have mnemonics – albeit those they use almost preternaturally – and I argue that their memory gets better with constant usage, not with giving up.

    For instance, I schooled in India too but I remember better those poems that my father set to a beat for me; I remember ‘Woh Todati Patthar’ by Nirala better than I remember The Solitary Reaper because admittedly as an urban child, I had seen some female construction workers breaking stones, but nary a woman reaping in the fields; I remember more about my Physics classes than my Chemistry lessons because I loved the former and loathed the latter.

    Your friend said: “…it was because he was so interested in people.”

    I agree with him – in part – when I say in the post that the essential things signalled by a good memory are “empathy, a genuine interest in people, the ability to make connections and an ability to remember their name and address them by it.

    But I agree only in part. The downside of a good memory is that one could remember birthdays and other stuff pertaining to people that one has no liking for and no interest in. I do and I dislike it, as if my brain were some limited space hard-disk.

    A good memory must always be deployed with great care too. I sometimes bring up things that contradict people in the midst of heated discussions. I recall entire conversations, with context, people present etc. You can only imagine how popular that makes me! πŸ™‚

    So I do not think you need to wonder about “… what that says about social memory-challenged people like me!” You probably are better off and do not get into hot water as often as I do.

    Thanks for your note.

  20. Vidya:

    Thanks for your note:

    You say: “Alas, the kind of memory you are talking about is a gift that people are simply born with, not a result of years of education in India or a genetic predisposition to remember trivia and verse.

    I think even remembering trivia and verse requires some innate ability to remember things. Because think of the flip side! There is plenty of stuff we have forgotten which suggests that our memory is selective.

    Further even those with the greatest memories have mnemonics – albeit those they use almost preternaturally – and I argue that their memory gets better with constant usage, not with giving up.

    For instance, I schooled in India too but I remember better those poems that my father set to a beat for me; I remember ‘Woh Todati Patthar’ by Nirala better than I remember The Solitary Reaper because admittedly as an urban child, I had seen some female construction workers breaking stones, but nary a woman reaping in the fields; I remember more about my Physics classes than my Chemistry lessons because I loved the former and loathed the latter.

    Your friend said: “…it was because he was so interested in people.”

    I agree with him – in part – when I say in the post that the essential things signalled by a good memory are “empathy, a genuine interest in people, the ability to make connections and an ability to remember their name and address them by it.

    But I agree only in part. The downside of a good memory is that one could remember birthdays and other stuff pertaining to people that one has no liking for and no interest in. I do and I dislike it, as if my brain were some limited space hard-disk.

    A good memory must always be deployed with great care too. I sometimes bring up things that contradict people in the midst of heated discussions. I recall entire conversations, with context, people present etc. You can only imagine how popular that makes me! πŸ™‚

    So I do not think you need to wonder about “… what that says about social memory-challenged people like me!” You probably are better off and do not get into hot water as often as I do.

    Thanks for your note.

  21. Re: your anecdote about Clinton’s memory, there was a funny skit on Saturday Night Live a few years ago starring Paul Simon in which various people came up to him to get his autograph, and he would say stuff like, oh yeah, you were in a red dress standing on the left wings of the concert hall in Chicago in 1970, and so on, until a curly haired blond fellow turned up and Paul just couldn’t recognise him, even after he said: it’s me, Art Garfunkel, we wrote and sang songs for years. Paul kept shaking his head: nope, doesn’t ring a bell at all…

  22. Re: your anecdote about Clinton’s memory, there was a funny skit on Saturday Night Live a few years ago starring Paul Simon in which various people came up to him to get his autograph, and he would say stuff like, oh yeah, you were in a red dress standing on the left wings of the concert hall in Chicago in 1970, and so on, until a curly haired blond fellow turned up and Paul just couldn’t recognise him, even after he said: it’s me, Art Garfunkel, we wrote and sang songs for years. Paul kept shaking his head: nope, doesn’t ring a bell at all…

  23. @ Feanor: That is a great story! πŸ™‚

    I can only imagine how many people Bill Clinton might have to deny knowing, before he starts discussing what one might mean by ‘know’.

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