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Improving Memory

I’ve just attended a lecture about improving memory, mostly about mnemonic techniques. I’m not against learning techniques to improve memory and I think it’s good to teach kids a variety of things many of which won’t be needed when they are younger as you never know which kids will need various skills. But I disagree with the assertion that we are losing valuable skills due to “digital amnesia”.

Nowadays we have programs to check spelling so we can avoid the effort of remembering to spell difficult words like mnemonic, calendar apps on our phones that link to addresses and phone numbers, and the ability to Google the world’s knowledge from the bathroom. So the question is, what do we need to remember?

For remembering phone numbers it seems that all we need is to remember numbers that we might call in the event of a mobile phone being lost or running out of battery charge. That would be a close friend or relative and maybe a taxi company (and 13CABS isn’t difficult to remember).

Remembering addresses (street numbers etc) doesn’t seem very useful in any situation. Remembering the way to get to a place is useful and it seems to me that the way the navigation programs operate works against this. To remember a route you would want to travel the same way on multiple occasions and use a relatively simple route. The way that Google maps tends to give the more confusing routes (IE routes varying by the day and routes which take all shortcuts) works against this.

I think that spending time improving memory skills is useful, but it will either take time away from learning other skills that are more useful to most people nowadays or take time away from leisure activities. If improving memory skills is fun for you then it’s probably better than most hobbies (it’s cheap and provides some minor benefits in life).

When I was in primary school it was considered important to make kids memorise their “times tables”. I’m sure that memorising the multiplication of all numbers less than 13 is useful to some people, but I never felt a need to do it. When I was young I could multiply any pair of 2 digit numbers as quickly as most kids could remember the result. The big difference was that most kids needed a calculator to multiply any number by 13 which is a significant disadvantage.

What We Must Memorise

Nowadays the biggest memory issue is with passwords (the Correct Horse Battery Staple XKCD comic is worth reading [1]). Teaching mnemonic techniques for the purpose of memorising passwords would probably be a good idea – and would probably get more interest from the audience.

One interesting corner-case of passwords is ATM PIN numbers. The Wikipedia page about PIN numbers states that 4-12 digits can be used for PINs [2]. The 4 digit PIN was initially chosen because John Adrian Shepherd-Barron (who is credited with inventing the ATM) was convinced by his wife that 6 digits would be too difficult to memorise. The fact that hardly any banks outside Switzerland use more than 4 digits suggests that Mrs Shepherd-Barron had a point. The fact that this was decided in the 60’s proves that it’s not “digital amnesia”.

We also have to memorise how to use various supposedly user-friendly programs. If you observe an iPhone or Mac being used by someone who hasn’t used one before it becomes obvious that they really aren’t so user friendly and users need to memorise many operations. This is not a criticism of Apple, some tasks are inherently complex and require some complexity of the user interface. The limitations of the basic UI facilities become more obvious when there are operations like palm-swiping the screen for a screen-shot and a double-tap plus drag for a 1 finger zoom on Android.

What else do we need to memorise?

2 comments to Improving Memory

  • Steinar Heimdal Gunderson

    I’m not sure if I understand. You claim that remembering multiplication tables is not very useful, yet you claim multiplying two-digit numbers without a calculator is an advantage? Short of being born with an innate knowledge of the multiplication tables, how do you expect people to be able to multiply quickly without first learning the small multiplication table, ie., up to 10?

  • Steinar: I think that people can survive reasonably well without being able to quickly multiply any numbers apart from 2 and 10 in their heads. It is an advantage to be able to do more mental maths, but it’s not that important. Also I managed without memorising multiplication tables up to 10, it is theoretically possible for other people to do the same.

    Now basic addition and subtraction is REALLY important. But unfortunately many people can’t do that properly. If the cash register says $45 then many store employees will get confused if I hand them $55 not understanding that I want a $10 note in change.