On Memory & Understanding

On Memory & Understanding

I have a terrible memory.

When I was a kid, I received lots of praise for my memory. But this was solely because I memorized “In Flanders Fields” and recited it to my church on Remembrance Day in the second grade. From then on, my family and family friends had it in their heads that my memory was spectacular. Whether or not it was true then, it definitely isn’t true now.

Sure, I can remember basic facts and concepts. I’ve memorized pretty much every intelligible song lyric on KiSS 92.5 (because they’re set to music and repeated fifty times a day). I’ve got close relatives’ birthdays and other important dates in my head. But my long-term memories are spotty at best, and they tend to be visual memories of “scenes” in my head, rather than facts and stories. And when it comes to recalling something I’ve seen, read, heard, or even experienced recently, I’m totally useless.

It takes a lot of effort to move random data from my working memory to my short-term memory. I’m often busy, tired, or indifferent, so many of the things I hear or see don’t make it into short-term. And if they don’t make it to short-term memory, they definitely won’t make it into the long-term. Numbers and equations are awful for this. (Even worse: remembering to remember something — hence my tendency to abandon or lose important items that I need to have with me.)

It’s much easier to store information that has a context or a meaning.

Knowing why something is true helps me to recall what is true in the first place. In my academic life, if I had an understanding of a physics concept, I would be much more likely to remember the equation that models it. Its components and structure would just make sense. And in the worst case scenario, if I forgot the equation altogether, I could use what I do know to figure out what the equation should be.

Between memorization and understanding, I am of the opinion that the latter is much more flexible, helpful, and indicative of intelligence and subject mastery. It’s why I went out of my way to avoid school subjects that required straight memorization, such as biology or history. And given my memory struggles, I believe that grinding doubly hard to memorize is nowhere near as useful for me as developing a thorough understanding of a subject, and working out the “memorizable” facts from there.

Maybe you’re a natural memorizer, and therefore you disagree. More power to you! But I maintain that it’s important for you to have context for the facts and figures you memorize.

The problem, in my opinion, is that a fact recalled is often more revered than a concept understood.

For example, why was it so impressive that I had memorized a poem? Did I understand the poem, its context, and its depth? I highly doubt it. (Though I don’t remember. Hah!) Perhaps people assume that in order to memorize something complex, you must also understand it. But most people who took biology in high school would disagree. There may be a correlation, but it’s definitely not consistent.

I hate when we judge expertise on memory, rather than on understanding. You may have both, but you may also have only one or the other. There are fields and areas of life in which both are mandatory, and that’s understandable. But I’m not likely to focus my time and energy in those fields. I acknowledge the benefits of strengthening and improving your memory, but I also don’t expect myself to be able to recite the Periodic Table (or something relevant to my life now) anytime soon. When it comes to expanding your expertise, I think it’s more important to understand the concepts, then go from there.

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.”
Albert Einstein

For some tips on managing a poor memory at work, check out this post!

How do you balance memory and understanding in your areas of expertise?