Towards a Better Memory: Update 3

Well, my project has finally come to a close (just in the nick of time). This has been an extremely enlightening experience and has given me the chance to learn about memory, but also the research process. Although it’s crucial to have an outline and an end goal, one of the most exciting parts of research is delving deeply into a side detail and seeing where it takes you. I had not originally planned to focus so much of the historical aspect of my project on non-literate cultures, but once I started reading about them I discovered they were the perfect foundation. Many other details I hadn’t thought to consider became key parts of my project as well: cultural emphasis on memory and Vedic scholars to name a few. For those of you interested, I have given a brief conclusion of all that I have learned about memory below:

A good memory allows us to more effectively function in society, reducing the constant need to consult notes or our phone to remember the things that matter. However, in the modern world, many extraneous factors negatively effect our natural memory ability. Our brains are restructured from constant use of the internet, and we fill our bodies with cholesterol and fats instead of flavonoids or other brain-helping foods. Exercise is at an all time low. In short, society is creating an environment of convenience that our bodies are not adapted to. This has a negative impact on overall body function; by depriving our brains of beneficial chemicals and allowing the hippocampus to shrink from physical stagnancy, we lower our mental and physical efficiency.

If these were the only problems, it wouldn’t be as deleterious, but we are also fighting a social battle for the importance of memory. Societies of the past extolled a keen memorizer, providing motivation for others to apply their full mental might. Not only was memory respectable, it was essential to survival: forgetting key rituals or information about food sources and dangerous animals could lead to a speedy and untimely demise. Schoolchildren experience the polar opposite in modern school systems as new-age teachers denounce memorizing in favor of analysis and critical thinking. Memorizing has transitioned from vital for survival to unnecessary, and more recently to uncool. Perhaps the reason for this demise is frustration with the actual process of memory. However, by employing location-based methods (memory palace, song lines, quipu, etc.) used by the non-literate ancient societies, modern humans could easily overcome this frustration and unlock the key to amazing memory. Mnemonic devices also promote creativity by creating vivid, unique, ridiculous mental images- a skill which can further enrich the human experience.

In short, it’s not only one factor that is draining our memory capacity. A combination of reliance on technology, unhealthy lifestyle, lack of cultural emphasis on memory, and a loss of helpful mnemonic techniques have all contributed to the problem. The good news is, the negative influences of these factors can be ameliorated if we put our mind to it. Let’s reinvigorate our love of memory, start teaching mnemonics in schools, make a conscious push to rely on technology less, and get back to eating and exercising right. All at once, it’s an ambitious undertaking, but improving even one of these categories can help. We must fight to preserve memory: it is our most valuable tool and most precious experience.


  1. Hi Caroline 🙂
    This is very interesting.
    I have a couple questions, just to play Devil Advocate.
    First of all, you assert that the loss of memory is bad, but never say why. Of course there are the obvious reasons, such as wanting to remember your keys and your life even as you age (both long term and short term memory). But I think some people would argue that many questions of memory (When was World War II? What was my homework?) can be answered by a Google Search or technology (online Blackboard websites, online calendars) or even without technology (writing notes, etc.). One could argue that if we are focusing less on memorizing things if we have technology that can ‘memorize’ for us, that we have more time/energy to devote to other worthy pursuits. So all that to say, why is it so important that we keep up our habit of memory?

  2. crsublett says:

    Thanks for asking Emma! You are right, I should include more about why memory is so vital. From an efficiency standpoint, always having to Google what you need to know is time consuming. There are also situations in which you might need to know something but not have access to technology/notes/etc. Having a body of knowledge always in your head can allow you to access it almost instantly in any circumstance, and the more we use memory the more seamless that access will become. When we depend so much on outside sources of memory, we may be ok for most circumstances, but we reduce our ability to use memory on our own. In instances where memory support becomes unavailable, we are left floundering. Also, building up our memory capacity can help combat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, thus improving quality of life. As for pursuing other worthy pursuits, I think you can still have time to memorize and pursue those things! The problem with our societal model now is that we practice memory so little that it becomes exceedingly difficult. However, the more we train our memories with mnemonic techniques and boost our natural ability with lifestyle changes, the easier it will become. In fact, you would probably save hours of studying a week because a trained memory can learn something so efficiently the first time.
    A second argument can be made from an emotional point of view. Memories define who we are. You cannot limit memory to only the collection of facts we remember. There is also a plethora of life experiences and corresponding lessons stored in our brain. Are we to rely on technology for those as well? I find incredible meaning in life from considering past experiences and how they have influenced me, and I think most other people would agree. With decreasing natural memory ability, we are more likely to forget these experiences. Most likely the hallmark moments won’t go anywhere, but think about the everyday interactions and ordinary encounters. Remembering those can help enrich your experience as well, and the more moments you remember, the longer your life will seem. Remembering can literally make time seem slower and more filled!
    Finally, there is intrinsic value in knowing. Efficiency and life-reflection aside, the human brain is designed to take in information, and store it. Based on it, we can make smarter actions in the future. One of the things that separates us from animals is the extreme extent to which our memory stretches. I believe that using our brain to the fullest of its abilities is one of the most noble pursuits for modern people seeking excellence and meaning. Unlocking the key to memory can help us explore the full depths of human potential and experience, while augmenting our world view and helping us make new and exciting connections. Other life pursuits may certainly be worthy, but I believe that few of them will impact as many areas of our lives as memory does.

  3. Caroline!

    Overall this is a highly intriguing topic, and I’d like to pique your brain for a moment. In the second paragraph you name several aspects of convenience (reliance on technology, poor nutrition, a lack of exercise) contributing to our lower capacity for memory, then go on to say that we have not physically adapted to this new state. Personally I’m of the opinion that humans will generally act in ways that are evolutionarily advantageous to their species; thus, it doesn’t make sense to me that we would adapt to this new environment, as doing so would adversely impact our physical and (subsequently) mental fitness based on what you’ve described. That being said, do/could you see any positive implications of these environmental changes, or do you still think we should work to reverse such shifts altogether?

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