Memory and intelligence

I have always ‘struggled’ with memory.  I would like to think I would pass myself off as reasonably intelligent – but would never score highly on any ‘test of memory’.  Examples – I remember very little poetry or Shakespeare from school, I remember very few telephone numbers, I struggle with birthdays and anniversaries.  When reading a book I enjoy the book – but will have limited recollection of the detail of the book.

Naturally, given importance of remembering some things, I used some aids.  For instance all the birthdays/ anniversaries are included in my online diary, appointments are noted in the diary, phone numbers available to me on my phone and I tend to create mind maps when reading business related books.

I do not think this memory issue (if it is an issue)  is recent.  Seem to remember(!) struggling with dates in history back in Fr. Lynch’s history classes in Belvedere in the mid 70s.  Later on there was never a happier student for the Chartered Accountancy Final exams when they switched to an ‘open book’ exam.  Always seemed to me to make sense that you should be able to tackle a question, using your skills, but cross reference/ check to the detailed backup materials – which is how many of us work.

Interested to read today’s piece in the Sunday Times by Hiram Morgan (‘The rise of the internet is rotting our brains’).  Of course the headline is designed to catch attention (given the location next to ‘Scarlett Johansson – The sexpot superhero’s great power is her brain’, Dr Morgan needed a strong headline).

The question for me is whether I can use this technology (internet, limitless amounts of data) to empower/ enhance my intelligence?  And I think the jury is out.  I would not be qualified to comment on his assertion that ‘as little as five days of internet surfing , with this erratic pattern of short attention spans and switching from link to link, has been shown to alter the neural pathways in the brain.  The result of this damage to short-term memory is that we do not properly build up long memory.  This prevents the brain from forming “schema”, without which the data we constantly consume is irrelevant.‘ But it would seem plausible to me.

Over the last few years I have become much more interested in history (One fellow 52 year old suggested history seems to be an obsession of 50 year old males) and as a result have read a great deal more about 20th Century US history and 18, 19 and 20th Century Irish history.  As a management consultant I also read widely in areas of business interest.  I am interested to see how much of this stuff I actually remember.

What has struck me recently is that History makes more sense (and I remember more of it) when I have some ‘intelligent’ dialogue with other interested people.  This did not take place in school for me – as I took not interest in the subject and limited my enthusiasm to maths, science and the classics.  I suppose also I now have some hunger to learn and to understand – and therefore the mind seems somewhat more active/ open/ stimulated.  In the case of consulting related reading I often have the opportunity to try out the ideas – and this seems to increase memory retention greatly.

A few years ago I attended some exam preparation seminars with one of my kids – and a great deal of the session was geared towards maximising ‘memorisation’ for exam purposes.  Again I am not qualified to comment – but I suspect, given the commercial success of the outfit, many of the students must be benefiting in terms of exam performance.  I would, however, have some doubts about ‘long term’ memory referenced by Dr. Morgan.  I also suspect they are very much geared at preparing students for exams which now lend themselves to students providing the exact piece of information answering a specific question for a specific number of marks in the paper (more specific than 35 years ago).

Returning to Dr Morgan’s assertion – for me the issue is that learning still takes effort.  That it how it has always been and how it should continue to be.  Something on the internet may catch my attention, something in the newspaper may catch my attention.  But understanding the issue, contextualising it, forming my own view – all of this requires effort – more reading, perhaps internet research, dialogue with experts.  What I fear is that many people are now struggling to give themselves the time to do this – in most cases they need to get offline, read, reflect, analyse, converse.  And perhaps, at some stage, bring it back online.