Right from my childhood, people have told me that I have an above-average memory. I have never been able to test that hypothesis much, except that I could figure out that I remembered more useless facts than most other people did. Facts like Paul McCartney composed the tune of Yesterday with the working verse of “Scrambled eggs/ Oh my baby how I love your legs.” Facts like Einstein got the Nobel Prize for discovery of the photoelectric effect and not the theory of relativity. Like a key battle strategy innovation of Alexander the Great was to have all his soldiers clean-shaven, so that in hand-to-hand combat, they could pull the enemy soldiers’ beards and their assailants couldn’t (at that time all soldiers were thickly bearded). Like…and that’s the point, I don’t think I have half the memory today that I used to have.
Age, alcohol and tobacco have surely contributed to this, but the world has too, to a much greater extent. I used to remember dozens of phone numbers, but today I can barely remember four. I sometimes struggle to recall my own home landline number. Every number is in the phonebook of my cellphone, and the phone is always with me, so that part of my memory has simply fallen into terminal disuse. If you have GPS on your phone or your car, you don’t need to remember any routes any more. For everything else, there’s Google. You just have to remember what you wanted to search for.
Yet, the role of memory was integral to the growth of human civilisation. All the Indic shastras and puranas were part of the smriti tradition, memorised by rishis and passed on from generation to generation. The ancient Greeks and Romans looked at memory as a virtue, and believed that cultivation of memory was important for building character. Wise men like Socrates thought poorly of writing things down, saying it would be “singularly simple-minded to believe that written words can do anything more than remind one of what one already knows.”
As Joshua Foer puts it in his excellent book Moonwalking With Einstein: “Socrates feared that writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path towards intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels.”
It is of course another matter that if Socrates’ pupil Plato had not written down what the great man said, we would never have known about him and his philosophy today.
The medical education system around the world—ever since the first witch doctor appeared—has been built on memorising thousands of biological details, symptoms, cases. The best doctors have always been simply the ones with the best memories. Many scientific studies have shown that the greatest achievers in many sports—chess obviously (if it can be termed a sport), but also soccer, cricket, baseball—have phenomenal memories. Sachin Tendulkar is supposed to remember every dismissal of his.
Even today, in most Asian countries, great store is laid on rote learning in their schooling systems—memorising facts, dates, formulae, texts. However, that is changing fast. In another decade, children may not even have to learn numerical tables, carry the answer to what seven into eight is in their heads.
Rote learning is today a term that is generally sneered at. But shouldn’t children up to a certain age develop the ability to learn by rote, memorise, if nothing else but to just develop the skill of remembering things? And remembering can often be crucial: it can even make the difference between life and death.
There’s that old American adage: “You can look it up.” If you can look it up, why bother burdening your mind with that stuff? That is logical, but only up to a point. Memorising the value of pi to 476 decimal points is surely an awesome feat, but what is the use of it to anyone or anything except your ego?
However, the next step from not cluttering our brain space with what you can look up easily should be that space is used for a higher level of activity—analysing better, imagining more, developing thoughts and ideas that take us forward in all the different aspects of our lives, maybe even make the world better. Is that happening? Well, in my case, I can confess without hesitation that it’s not. And I suspect I am not the only one.
I believe we are losing our ability to remember, and we are not replacing—or certainly insufficiently replacing—that ability with something else that is useful or satisfying. Today, we read a profound book or watch a pathbreaking film, and if we are asked the next day about it, we would be hard-pressed to remember the details. Other than a vague general description, and an impressionistic view (“Yeah, it was very insightful, eye-opening” or “It made me cry”), most of us would not be able to say much about what we had read or watched.
Yet, it’s a strange thing. I can remember many films that I saw more than 20 years ago, almost scene by scene. Last week, I watched Sholay on TV again after many years, and could recall almost every piece of dialogue in that four-hour epic even as the actors were mouthing them. OK, Sholay may be an extreme case—to my generation, it’s got ingrained in our mental cultural landscape through many viewings—but what about something like The Untouchables? I may not remember the dialogues, but I can tell you the story, scene by scene—almost. Now ask me about Dhoom 3 or The Hobbit Part II. I’ll be almost blank.
I remember the World Cup final that India won in 1983 more or less clearly. But I hardly remember anything from the World Cup 2011 final other than Dhoni’s winning six.
Try this exercise, and I suspect many of you will be in my state.
What are we doing with our memories? Sometimes it scares me. Maybe I’ll just go and mug up the multiplication tables of 23 and 37 or something, just to wake up those long-asleep brain cells. And I’m hoping that they are only asleep and not dead.