What’s the Relationship Between Memory and Profession?

I’m wondering if how much we can remember is related to what we become in life.  Generally we think the careers we pursue are selected by interest, the ability to conceptualize the work, and talent.  But what role does memory play?  Does the ability to remember details accurately influence what we choose to do in life?  Could engineers, surgeons, mathematicians, composers, physicists, become who they are without good memories?  Could actors and singers work without the abilities to remember lines and songs?  Could salesmen and politicians succeed without remembering people’s names.  How well could people in law enforcement do their jobs without a knack for remembering faces and cases?  Isn’t becoming a lawyer all about memorizing precedents and laws?  Well, what about absent minded professors?  Maybe to remember all the important facts of their discipline it’s vital to forget all the piddling practical things?

I can remember all the things I wanted to be as a kid, and looking back I can see I never had the memory skills to do those things.  I became a programmer when I failed at being a scientist.  And I’m only a so-so programmer.  I have a certain knack for programming, but that’s because I can remember commands and algorithms to a degree.  If I could have mastered mathematics I would have liked to have been an astronomer, or robot designer.  My fantasy careers were to be another Robert A. Heinlein or Bob Dylan.  I have great difficulty holding plot ideas in memory, and the only song I can remember is Happy Birthday, and I usually flub the 4th line.

Our whole K-12 educational philosophy is to prepare individual children to know everything that an ideal adult should know – as if everyone should be the same.  We expect kids to memorize a body of knowledge we consider essential for a well rounded citizen, when in fact, everyone specializes, and everyone has varying levels of brain processing powers.  Some people are Intel i7s, while others are Motorola 6502s.

The hot topic in education right now is the Common Core State Standards.  The initiative’s mission statement says:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover.  In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization.  By focusing on the Common Core standards we can evaluate students, teachers and schools through comparisons.  The assumption being if kids in school A rank higher than kids in school B, then teachers and administrators are doing a better job in school A.  But what if everyone learns the same standards equally well, but one school does better than another?  How much education comes from outside of the school?  Does growing up in a well-to-do family confer more opportunity to learn?  Or what if some kids have better parents or mentors that push practice and memorization?  Education isn’t just about the particularly facts we learn.

There are only so many facts we can stuff into our brains.  We grind through our school years cramming for tests, but how much of this essential knowledge is really essential later in life?  In last month’s Harper’s Magazine Nicholson Baker wrote “Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II” – not available online, but nice summarized at Popular Science as “Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?”  Baker pleads for us to abolish the Common Core State Standards for Algebra II because few people use it later in life, and many students suffer from studying it.  But isn’t that true of most of what we studied in school?

What if pushing memory skills helps with careers?  Advance math requires remembering years of previous mathematical techniques.  Most of what you learn in school can be studied days before the test, but not advanced math.  Passing Algebra II reflects great memory skills.

How successful in life we become is determined by how much we can remember.  Kids who master Algebra II go on to become scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, lawyers – whether or not they actually need advance mathematics or not.  The ability to remember and process complex concepts correlates well with success in many fields – and I think it’s because it reflect memory skills.

Also in the news was the Bullitt County 1912 Eighth Grade exam, that made 2013 smart people feel stupid.  Not only could I not pass this 1912 test, but I doubt I could pass any 2013 Common Core tests.  I read lots of books and consider myself reasonably educated, but if I had to rate my intelligence by tests then I’m a dummy.  I love pop culture, but do miserably at trivia games.  Facts just don’t stay in my head, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.


I’ve read dozens of books on the history of physics and cosmology, yet I doubt I could talk about this topic in anything but the vaguest way. I often write blog posts stuffed with facts that I hope to retain by writing about them, but never do.  Some bits of information do stick, but I have no control over what facts get filed in permanent memory and what don’t, and whether or not I can recall the stored facts in a timely manner.

What I do is consume knowledge and shit out the solid facts, maybe digesting a bit of their nutriments, and I hope I become a bit wiser overall.  My opinions will change but I can’t substantiate my beliefs with regurgitated references.  My love of information is more akin to binging on sweets.

Knowing this makes me wonder why we spend so much money and effort forcing children to pass tests regarding knowledge they don’t retain.  Obviously, a good education leaves a lot of knowledge sticking to the ribs of their brains, but a surprising amount gets immediately discarded.  I do remember a fair amount of arithmetic but damn little algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.  My guess is the old adage, “use it or loose it” applies.  So anything I learned fifty years ago that’s still in my head is there because I’ve had to use it.  So why not build an education system focused more on doing and less on testing?

Now that I’m retiring next month, I hope to study math again.  I’ve always regretted not working harder at learning math, and I’m wondering if I use it again, will some forgotten aspects magically come back, or will I have to memorize the old facts all over again?  My guess if I work at it for a year I’ll develop some skills I currently don’t have, but if I stop working at it, those same skills will quickly disappear.  Whether or not I’ll find some hobbies that actually need math skills is another matter.  I’ve always wanted to program some computer animation and that does take math.  If I apply the math, I might remember more, and for longer.

Sure, I might discover I hit a math barrier quickly.  I might not have the memory skills to go very far this second time around, but I am going to take a different approach.  It won’t be to pass tests.

Are our minds more like a hard drive where we store files, or like a computer program where we load information into memory to process?  We generally think of memory and mind as one, but what if that’s not true?  Is my personality reflected in how I react to experiences, or how I remember them?  Recently I fell in love with the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” sung by Joan Osborne.  Do I love that song because of who I am, or because of the 1966 Jimmy Ruffin version of the song imprinted on my brain for life as a mood memory and listening to the new one stimulates that old memory?

Even after playing this song over a hundred times recently, I can’t remember the words, nor could I hum the melody.  However, something has been recorded in my brain that remembers the mood of the original song.  Hearing the Joan Osborne version pushes the same button in a deeply emotional satisfying way.

What’s weird, I’m obsessed with the song right now, but in a few weeks I’ll have completely forgotten it – until the next time I hear the music.  Even when I want to preserve a memory, to hang onto a cherish feeling, I can’t.  I supposed if I sang the song myself every day it would eventually become a part of me.  And that might explain why I forget so much – I’m constantly consuming new songs, new books, new movies, new television shows.

There are limits to memory I can’t overcome, but I could master more facts if I was willing to narrow my consumption of new data.  I’m a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next, with no memories of the last.  Maybe if I tasted fewer flowers I’d remember more of them?

If humans were robots and we stored our memories in mechanical devices, we’d still have limitations, even if we could consciously control what we retained.  I’ve always read about people with eidetic memories in awe.  In my mind, they must be a superior species.  Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how many facts we can maintain at our fingertips.  We’ll never be robots, and most of us will never have photographic memories, but who we are is defined by our limitations of memory, and not what we remember.

I believe my hobby is blogging now because of the limitations of my memory.  I can look up facts and quotes on the internet as needed.  If I could remember lyrics, chords, notes and melodies, I’d be playing music as my hobby.  If I could hold a lot of entangled concepts in my mind, I’d probably be writing novels.  If I was good with trivia I’d spend more time with my wife going to trivia games.  If I had a great memory, I’d probably be programming with languages that have large libraries of powerful functions.  I’m really amazed at the synergy between my poor memory and using Google with writing blog posts.  Even the length of the post is hitting the wall with how much I can conceptually handle at once.

I believe our memory abilities define what we choose to do.  But I also believe that the limitations of my memory confines me in explaining this.  I hope my memory power at least hints at what I want to say.

JWH – 9/17/13

13 thoughts on “What’s the Relationship Between Memory and Profession?”

  1. Jim –

    Re: “Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover. In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization.”
    Um, no, it’s not – the ultimate goal of the Common Core standards is to promote the development of students’ critical thinking skills, and the ability to synthesize learning across the curriculum. Of course, that does require the absorption – not the same as memorization – of key pieces of information via learning.

    Insofar as the ” case against Algebra II” argument, you might find this interesting: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2013/09/algebra_2_not_the_same_credential_it_used_to_be.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS2

    Finally, I simply must ask: Has your issue/concern with memory been a recent development, or has this been a lifelong preoccupation…?

    (By the way, this entry truly places the title of your blog in absolutely clear perspective…!)

    1. That’s a fascinating article about Algebra II. It will be interesting to see if the Common Core Standards can address that problem.

      I’ve always had a memory problem, but now that I’m getting older I have more of a memory problem. Even as a teen I could not remember the words to songs no matter how many times I heard them. My wife on the other hand, can quickly memorize lyrics and melody, and often can sing songs that were popular 40-50 years ago.

      Yes, Auxiliary Memory is a descriptive title for my blog.

  2. I’d say we tend to remember what interests us. If we’re not interested, it’s not as easy to remember it. I hate to play cards, so I have to be taught the rules all over again, every time I’m (reluctantly) persuaded to play.

    But that’s not to say that you can’t learn to remember better. Our abilities aren’t fixed. If you really wanted to become a scientist, you could learn.

    And these days, with the Internet, it’s easy to look up anything we want. So having a great memory isn’t necessary. If you have critical-thinking skills, you can easily check the facts. And if you’ve forgotten something, it’s generally pretty easy to find it again online.

  3. I couldn’t remember who the “Jeopardy” champ was, but Googled it and learned that Ken Jennings does not rule the world. He’s a pretty ordinary schmo. So maybe the computer geeks are right – memory’s cheap.

    Does memory make you smart? Does being smart make you competent?

    Take a building full of smart people with memory;and what have you got? Google, or the IRS, or maybe Pelican Bay?

    One of our best neurosurgeons recently wrote that he knew an enormous amount about the brain, but was not getting close to learning the whereabouts of the mind.

    I understand your interest in learning math in retirement, but like you say, to what end? You are about to evolve and it’s scary. You’ll learn that you were wrong about ….. what? Of course, that’s assuming depression doesn’t kill you.

    Billy Pilgrim

    1. We know that idiot savants with fantastic memories are barely functional in society. Billy, even though my essay meanders all over the place, what I’m really asking is: Does better memory allow people to do things that people with poor memory can’t?

      For most of my life I assumed I didn’t sing because I didn’t have a talent for singing. But now I’m wondering if it was because I have no memory for melody or lyrics. I’d guess if I could remember lyrics, their flow would help with the memory of melody.

      I’d further like to know if lack of memory for music is the same as no talent, or is it a lack of practice. I’m curious if I could develop a memory for music if I worked at it. I’m using myself as a test subject, but I’m really asking the question about how the mind works in general.

      Billy, you often worry that I have depression, but I don’t. I just like to endless speculate about things. I’m not crying over a lack of musical ability. I’m just curious why. It’s like you pointed out with the story about the neurosurgeons knowing a lot about the brain but not the mind. I believe I’m asking these questions to understand how my mind works.

      The common assumption is people are good at something because they have a talent. But what is talent? Researchers are showing that part of talent is practice. I’m asking if part of talent is memory skills. And I expect that there isn’t just one type of memory skill but many.

      There might be a whole array of sub-functions to talent. With music, obviously discerning pitch is a valuable trait. A knack for timing also is important. How many other qualities matter? And no one talent will have the same set of skill traits. And how many possible skill traits are there?

      I don’t assume memory is a key factor, but just one of many factors.

  4. In many of Robert Heinlein stories math ability and math skills were touted…. One of his stories, I can’t remember the title… ha, he list the math requirements of Future attorneys, boat captains, police, etc. and I was worried and scared that I would ever be able to learn such advanced math ( I was in my teens and this was the 60’s)…. well he was right, we would all need advanced math in the future ….. it’s just that we carry “it” in our cell phones, GPS, and computers…. Jim

  5. FUN fact about really advanced math: To accurately determine a position on the ground, the clocks on GPS satellites must run with an accuracy of 1 nanosecond (1 billionth of a second). However, the satellites are moving with respect to observers on the ground. So both special and general relativity must be taken into account. The designers of GPS satellites must account for both the time dilation from special relativity, and the fact that time moves at different rates depending on altitude, from general relativity. Thanks God some dam electronic brain does the math! Jim in Miami

    1. I wonder if they anticipated all the problems before they sent up the first GPS satellite? Or did they send up a couple and then discover their locations were off and had to figure out the problems?

      We live in a very mathematical reality. That’s why I’ve always felt bad for not knowing more math. People who understand math have another sense in which to observe the world.

  6. I taught for 25 years in the public school system and found test like the above 1912 test to be the best… To explain yourself and how systems interact is a major goal in thinking and education. Not only is it hard to teach, BUT, much harder to grade…….time…. So people invented multiple choice. Yet, life is not a multiple choice problem solving scenario….. Jim … again

    1. I’ve been told the new Common Core standards are supposed to promote thinking over memorization. I hope that works out. I’ve been cruising the net looking for some Common Core textbooks.

      Did you know that there are companies working on software to process essay questions? It’s not very good yet, but it’s improving fast. The goal is to process essays as fast as grading multiple choice tests. That would be a cool programming job, I would think.

      1. Yeah …. but again, when I read a kids written answer I get insight into how “that” kid thinks and look for the small and big things in the answer or humor or some mistake I made in teaching the idea…. It could be ME not the students writing the wrong concept and I need the feedback ….. it also shows interest… interest propels you as a self learner… that’s what is important! … sorry, but a computer program that reads short written answers is still a lazy way out!

  7. Single digit arithmetic should be memorized cold, as should the laws of simple fractions and percentages. Unfortunately, students are given calculators and told to use it for everything, like 3 x 8.

    Adults end up being uncomfortable with simple arithmetic, and absolutely LOST on fractions. I see it every day. I tutor math, some remedial, at the university level.

  8. Very interesting lecture. I suffer from the same thing. I’ve tried to solve this problem buying books -with titles like boost your memory in 48 hs- and I haven´t arrived yet to any visible results. Also, in my country, I´ve tried with doctors and cognitive professionals, and no one have told me things like “you have bad memory”. It´s like these diagnostic doesn´t exists. In a so called “memory and cognitive health clinic” I had gone through different sort of tests and nothing turned out not to be in his place. But it is also truth that -in my point of view- the doctors were only assessing my short-term memory.

    For me, it was incredible difficult to find information related to my case. Most information on the web is about:

    -How to improve memory -in normal people-
    -Memory loss related with drugs, ADD, stress.

    There are few articles like these.

    Also happened to me, not to remember songs lyrics. Also jokes.

    I’m account but I quit from my job because I was able to handle numbers. An accountant must have the ability to “have the number” inside his head. He can’t keep up searching in the computer the data. It’s about efficiency at work.

    Now I’m a SAP consultant (computer´s) and I still have problems remembering where are the flags I should check!!!

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