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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Shallows – Nicholas Carr

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows – how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’.

Carr provides lots of historical and scientific background material – all of which I found relevant and stimulating.  In many respects I found myself identifying closely with Carr’s own experience – wondering what impact my increasing involvement with the online world is having on me.  I am also trying to understand the threats and opportunities for my kids as they grow up in this web centric world.

I suppose the first theme is Carr setting out to substantiate his theory that the mind is impacted by the tools we use.  He refers to its ‘plasticity’.  He quotes a range of authorities (and experimental evidence) to support this.  And I found this conclusive.

He also takes us back as far as Socrates and his concerns as to the impact on the mind of writing down details of events – the potential negative impact on mind/ memory.

I was most struck by the discussion about memory and how the mind commits detail to ‘long term’ memory.  Carr talks about the current processing and the long term storage.  In particular he focused on the importance of focus/ concentration when reading – the impact on the ability of the mind to process and store information being related to this ability to concentrate (and, it would seem, the impact of your immediate surrounds e.g. quite rural v. busy metropolitan). In this context it is interesting to compare the online, hypertext enhanced, web experience with reading a book.  The web experience is immediately more attractive (and vastly more distracting).  Generally the online experience is accompanied by interruptions from social networks, email, instant messaging, text on the side of pages, etc.  Reading a book, as I have just done, in a quiet room, with no online distraction, is quite different.

I would not suggest that reading a book in a quiet room is without distractions.  As a consultant, reading a book such as ‘Shallows’ I find myself inevitably thinking about recent experiences in client situations, current client issues and, more generally, other books/ materials I have read on related subjects.  Carr references some of this in an interesting observation on the difference between computer memory and human memory.  At different stages we recall detail from long terms memory to current memory, associate it/ correlate it with current memory content and eventually, depending on quality of our experience, may restore it in an enhanced way in long term memory.  And we would describe this as a richer memory storage than any we may ‘outsource’ to computer memory.

Carr admits he has not changed much in his own behaviour.  While writing the book he withdrew from much of his online interactivity.  He readily admits to his own ‘withdrawal’ symptoms during this period.  Having completed the book he returned to the web.  He also acknowledges that for many working in this web centric world they have little choice but to participate actively.  However none of this is to undermine his analysis – there is a real need to distinguish between genuinely human thinking and memory and that which is driven/ influenced by search engines, social networks and online content.  Fail to make time for quality, offline, reading/ research/ contemplation at your peril.

I would very much like to see a discussion of Carr’s book incorporated into secondary school education – if there is an appropriate subject/ class in which to discuss it.

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