Perhaps people like to memorize stuff?

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Steve brings up the fact that there is a trend in Indian culture toward memorizing stuff as a way of showing off one’s intellect. This seems plausible. But, I think a bigger point might be that rote learning and feats of memory have traditionally been more important in human history than they are now, and Western societies in particular are on the cutting edge on placing more of an emphasis on creative original thinking which illustrates the ability to reconstitute concepts into a novel synthesis as opposed to regurgitating ancient forms. In fact before the printing press made books much more common there was a whole field termed the Art of Memory in the West.
Note: I would also add that memory has different utility in different fields. Physicists who I’ve known seem to be rather slack about memorization, but then their field is one where theory is robust enough to generate useful inferences. In some ways the rise of mathematical science is the story of the decline of memory.



  1. I’m sure I’m not the only one who memorized umpteen digits of Pi when they were young :-) [1] 
    Does anyone know what different kinds of measures of memories there are? (We have different kinds of measures for intelligence. Like IQ, Wonderlic, etc. Are there different kinds of measures for memory?) [2] 
    And given these measures, are there stats on how different populations do on these measures
    [1] Not something that I use when I’m trying to impress a lady of course :-) But there’s a certain class of people who get impressed when they realize I’m not just making the digits up as I go, and that I actually reciting the digits of Pi.  
    [2] When I was a teenager (or maybe younger), I figured that memory was part of what people interpreted as “being smart”. (Not the only component though. But part of it.)

  2. Steven Pinker had a good quote on the lack of history in India, which I discuss here.

  3. Yeah – this isn’t exclusive to Indians at all. Family legend has it that my great-grandfather knew the Torah and Talmud by heart (which sounds a bit excessive, but I wouldn’t know). I suppose though that if you spent most of your waking hours studying this sort of stuff from the age of 4 to 20 then you could reach pretty impressive results.

  4. muslims memorize the koran. is there a chinese equivalent? i assume that candidates for the mandarinate had to know the classics by heart if they were to write an essay on them.

  5. Yes. 
    But just learning to read and write Chinese is a massive effort of memorisation to begin with. 
    The way my Mandarin teacher put it, if you learn 6 new characters every day, while not forgetting any of those you have already learned, in 3 years you will have learned enough characters to read a newspaper. 
    How long did it take you to learn the alphabet, if you can remember back that far – an hour at the most?

  6. There was, in the 18th century I believe, a man who had memorized the entire Bible. Not only could he recite it in order, if you named a verse to him, however obscure, he could tell you what it said. But I have forgotten his name. :) 
    In ancient times quite a few people knew the Iliad by heart, I understand.  
    Chess players are known for their monstrous memories; Paul Morphy supposedly memorized the entire civil code of Louisiana, Harry Pillsbury could recite lists of unrelated words backwards and forwards etc. All chess masters have to memorize long lines of opening analysis and endgame technique; even in positions where rote memorization doesn’t help, pattern recognition is still critical. 
    When I was a teenager (or maybe younger), I figured that memory was part of what people interpreted as “being smart”. 
    Yes, absolutely. When I was young people thought I was smarter than I really was, because of my memory. Unfortunately they are much harder to fool now.

  7. People strong both in rote and in critical thinking seem to do the best. A lot of the best grad students (and beyond) started out in old-fashioned East or South Asian schools emphasizing tons of detail work, and then went to wild and crazy American grad schools. If you have a solid fund of knowledge, improvisation is easier. (Something like this is true in music, too, where it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know their instrument well to improvise very interestingly.) 
    This strikes me as a dispute which no one should take sides on or ideologize. Traditionalist “Basic Skills” teachers stunt their students, and so do teachers who only value creativity and originality and reward kids too much for just farting around. 
    Practical disciplines tend to stress rote more — medicine, law, engineering. Partly because applied fields have to deal with actual, non-spherical cows in all their diversity.  
    I hope to see physics and pure theory taken down a peg. Scientific common sense has moved too far in the theoreticist, anti-empirical, anti-experimental direction. Application is like experimentation, and new ideas can be found where standard applications of theory don’t work.

  8. There was a story about a Confucian who was captured during the Opium War. He seemed terribly depressed and someone suggested he read a book. He answered “I can’t. I’ve memorized all of the good ones”.  
    Maybe apocryphal, but a minimally-competent entry-level Confucian scholar of the village-schoolteacher type would have to have memorized at least ten books totalling at least 1000 pages, all written in an archaic language different than the spoken language.

  9. There was, in the 18th century I believe, a man who had memorized the entire Bible. Not only could he recite it in order, if you named a verse to him, however obscure, he could tell you what it said. 
    “A friend of the author’s had met a man who knew the Mahabharata (six times the length of the Bible) by heart.” 
    The abstract doesn’t specify whether he knew every word verbatim. I read the article in 2006 but I don’t have access now.

  10. I wouldn’t be surprised if the fellow who knew the Bible was Alexander Cruden, who wrote the first thorough concordance to the Bible. 
    The life sciences are famously more memorization-intensive than the physical sciences; Feynman complains of it, and Fermi quoted as having said “If I could remember all these (subatomic) particles, I’d be a botanist”. 
    My daughter pretty much knows the letters of the alphabet – she can name them correctly, and that feat took her significantly more than an hour. But she’s not yet 2. It took me more than an hour to memorize the Greek alphabet, at the age of about 5 or 6, and the Cyrillic, at the age of about 10 or 12. I never did memorize the Korean, though I studied it (and others) in a class as an undergrad.

  11. Is there a correlation though between memory and general intelligence/IQ? Because if so, then it may not be erroneous for people to think of good memorizers as “smart”. 
    Plus, regarding the topic of Indian culture and memorization, aren’t they good at quantitative fields as well? 
    I don’t know, but from university observations, I get the impression that browns = good at maths is more common stereotype than good at memorizing facts. 
    If the two were correlated, that would make sense though.

  12. Both forms of digit-span rely on short-term memory, but reversed is more g-loaded.

  13. If you want to start measuring memory ability and comparing it to something like g it is probably worthwhile to pay special attention to the span between learning and retrieval because this greatly influences which neural system will be involved. As I understand it, g is easily related with working memory on the order of a few seconds to minutes, and both seem to rely on a network involving the prefrontal cortex. I wouldn’t know what to predict about memory over the course of hours or days though. I suspect it would be difficult to control for attention as a confound.  
    Thinking a little further, since memory at longer time scales seems to rely on limbic structures like the hippocampus and the amygdala I wonder to what degree memory-skill might correlate with emotional responses and processing of emotion rather than g… given the shared substrate.