Mental Feats: The 2015 USA Memory Championship (Scienceline)

I’m sharing this a bit late, but here’s an audio piece covering this year’s USA Memory Championship. I enjoyed the story on the whole, but the author misses what I consider to be a key point about memory. She asks the million dollar question: “What’s the use of memory, especially when technology like smartphones and the Internet can do it for us?” She goes on but never quite settles on a satisfying answer.

Personally, I find a key benefit of improved recall is that I’m able to make meaningful connections between things I learn. Here’s an example. About two months ago, I learned what seemed to be a random, memorizable fact: the molecule acetylcholine is involved in memory and attention. Two weeks ago, I learned that the basal forebrain nuclei (which produce acetylcholine) connect to the hippocampus (involved in memory). Things were starting to click. Finally, a few days ago I learned that the basal forebrain nuclei often degrade during Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t need telling to realize that this loss of acetylcholine production partially explains the cognitive deficits and hippocampal damage seen in Alzheimer’s. What I learn is made that much more memorable by connections like these, connections I only would’ve made with adequate recall.*

I don’t think the author completely sidesteps this idea, but like a lot of memory-related media coverage, this benefit gets lost in the shuffle. With the stigma surrounding “memorization,” maybe memory needs a rebranding. I heard Brad Zupp make an interesting point recently. In his speeches, he often directs the discussion toward improving “recall.” It’s the simplest rebrand in the world, but I bet that switch alone avoids many of the snores that accompany “memorization.” Sounds like a good place to start. 

*For more on this topic, check out fellow Baltimore mnemonist Leland Brigham's suggestions: Joshua Foer's talk at Google and Scott Young's blog "Knowing Facts Still Matters (Even in an Age of Wikipedia)."