How important is our Memory in Learning?

‘Funes the Memorious’ was the title of a fantasy short-story by the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). It is about a man who after falling from his horse and receiving a bad head injury proceeded to acquire an amazing talent – the ability to remember everything. On the face of it, it seems a great gift, but on deeper thought, it might well be a curse, as many of us are content to erase certain memories as much as we would like to hold on to others.

The human brain is a fascinating organ! Sometimes it baffles us to see how children especially are able to think about a premise, remember facts or places they have visited and understand concepts. In technical terms, memory is the superior cognitive process that defines the temporal dimension of our mental organization. It serves us by processing, storing and recalling information and experiences from the past.

Much has been written in educational circles about our memory and how it is related to learning. Our very ability to think and to memorize is part of our human nature. This in turn contributes to the formation and continuation of our overall personality. Memory strongly influences our intelligence as well as our mental, emotional, physical and social behaviour.

The "nature verses nurture" debate was one that developed throughout the last millennium. It concerned the question of how much of what we are can be attributed to genetics and our 'make up' as opposed to what we learn and discover as we move through life.

Aristotle, (350 BC) who was revered as ‘The Great Teacher," was responsible for influencing the general acceptance that all our character was in fact nurtured. In his treatise "On the Soul,"
 he made the comparison of the human mind being a ‘tabula rasa’ - that is a ‘blank state’ that comes to be filled with knowledge as we grow. It was his belief that human beings are born without any knowledge and with the passing of time, we acquire knowledge through our experiences. 

As time went on, it was thought that there were two kinds of memory. The natural memory was what guides us instinctively in our everyday pursuits. The artificial memory included all that we learned and were trained to retain - things that were not necessary for us to know in order to survive in our day to day living. 

Today, with more knowledge of how the brain actually functions, key research in the field of ‘cognitive psychology’ and neuroscience has taught us so much more. I think back to the days when I had to learn ‘by rote,’ all twenty verses in Part One of Samuel Taylor’s ‘Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner.’ ‘Rote learning’ is a memorization technique based on repetition that served many well. But where does ‘learning by rote’ sit today? Has it any real value? 

Chinese learners retain this tradition of purposeful learning ‘by heart.’ It is an integral part of their educational culture. In the western world, multiplication tables, the periodic table, statutes in law, useful formulae and the anatomy are all areas of study that require fundamental knowledge best served by rote learning. 

Elsewhere, educationalists are asking if it is necessary to learn facts in a somewhat parrot fashion. This is more true in a world where everything can be easily found on a need to know basis? They emphasize the acquisition of skills with alternatives to rote learning and knowledge including ‘meaningful learning,’ ‘associative learning,’ and ‘active learning.’  Critics say that rote learning eschews ‘understanding’ and is ineffective when it comes to mastering a complex subject at a higher level. 

Students at ‘A’ Level often speak of ‘cramming’ (their word for rote learning with the sole purpose of passing an exam). While it may not be a case of ‘in one ear and out the other,’ many will confess to forgetting the material digested soon after, making critics question the level of understanding as opposed to the mere recall of facts (which is seen to be less important).

Over time, as we gain experience working in a specific study environment or workplace, it could be argued that we can access what we ‘need to know’ in our brain so as to be able to call it up immediately. With so much information to process, we become accustomed to filtering out that which is of use for our circumstances in our everyday lives. We assess the content very quickly in coming to a decision as to what it is we wish to retain. We consider the amount, how it is arranged, the degree of familiarity and the nature or relevance of the material.

I imagine the doctor who doesn’t need to refer to the pharmaceutical manual or medical dictionary, but has information on the tip of his tongue, that he has acquired over years.  Certain facts need to be well established in his brain if he is to access them at a given moment. 

But It is also true that at some stage he will inevitably have to check his medical dictionary. There is no clear guarantee that he will remember completely the facts he is exposed to. If he wishes to learn the full spectrum of knowledge required about a particular topic, then like an actor preparing for a play, the most effective way to do this is to study with the purpose of recalling. This means using the mechanism of rote learning. 

The three main processes involved in human memory could be simply expressed as processing, retaining and retrieving.

The processing phase is about taking information and holding it in a form that can be stored. This encoding can be tempered by the kind of material to be processed as well as the environment and conditions under which it happens.

Retaining is the storing of encoded information. Some things we will store in our long-term memory. For other things, the duration of retention is much shorter and these will reside in our short-term memories.

Retrieval is the act of recalling or accessing the information that has already been stored.

While memory is essential to learning, it also depends upon ‘learning.’ This is because the information stored in our memories is the very foundation for linking new knowledge by virtue of association. Take the relationship line which follows a pattern - 'Meet someone new' - Next time, 'Have I met you before?'  After a few meetings - 'getting to know you' and from there, the knowing can be endless if ever complete.

Memory and learning is a relationship of interdependence which grows continually throughout our lives. There will be occasions when we will know what information is better for us to ‘learn by heart.’  Usually this is during the study period of our lives! Our powers of discretion will decide what merits such an effort.

At any rate, the mere exercising of the brain using different methods in order to recall facts means that we are more alert generally. And an active brain will mean better mental well-being, not to mention a boost to creativity.

For most of us, in our day to day living, we will continue to forget the simple and even remember the complex in ways that sometimes astonish us. Like Herb Caen, the San Francisco journalist we can all claim - ‘I have a memory like an elephant, I remember every elephant I ever met.’

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