How Useful is an Unusually Good Memory in the Real World?

Being able to memorize names, numbers, pictures, etc. is a necessary skill to succeed in school. Rote memorization is what most of formal schooling is all about.

I wonder how useful such memorization ability is in the real world. My sense is not very much — at least beyond a base level of ability.

First, in my experience, most meetings, calls, and presentations are "open book". You can have notes and index cards and prompts with you at all times. This allows you to partially memorize, say, a speech, yet always have the option to refer to your prepared remarks. School requires 100%, complete memorization.

Second, it’s easier than ever to outsource things we used to remember. As Clive Thompson shows in his recent Wired article, younger people are less able than their elder counterparts to remember personal details of people they know (such as birth date or phone number). Why? Technology has made it easy to automate. Now we just need to remember where we keep the list of numbers, not the numbers themselves.

Certainly a knack for remembering details in your head can be helpful in situations like a cocktail party full of old friends where recalling someone’s name can win major political brownie points. And rattling off a perfect-for-the-moment quote from memory can be sly.

Still, in general, I think unusual memorization ability serves a purpose more in trivia games or hacking the formal school system than in the professions.

(Hat tip to the "bee-queen of memory" for sparking this idea — unlike me, she has an extraordinary memory for quirky details. But her many other talents will prove more useful.)

17 Responses to How Useful is an Unusually Good Memory in the Real World?

  1. Tyler Link says:

    I disagree. I find that their tends to be a high correlation between memory and intelligence, as in the better the ability to recall obscure facts the easier it is to carry on a sophisticated conversation, solve a difficult math, engineering, or programming problem, or tackle a difficult legal challenge. Almost everyday I say to myself, “boy, I wish I had a better memory.”

  2. I would disagree as well. (Of course I would!) A good memory enriches life, Ben. Being able to rapidly recall anything can help wherever and whenever you go.

    True, a lot of business life can be scripted with note cards, etc., but what about the Question and Answer period that follows the business presentation?

    What about chance business encounters when you need to knock someone’s socks off? Indeed sometimes a phenomenal memory can get you a job! (I’ll explain later if you want.)

    Those who remember all the details without losing track of the big picture tend to flourish in the end. You want to always seem as if you’re on your game and a sharp memory and an insatiable wit are tools of the trade.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    I should probably clarify that I don’t doubt that a good memory can be useful and if you have one, great! But on the list of important characteristics for success, I don’t see it being very high. Contrast that to the school environment, and I see memorization ability as a very important factor in your success.

  4. Laura says:

    Ok. Interchanging memory and memorization is misleading. I’m not talking about memorizing state capitals (guaranteed to get you an A in fifth grade), I’m referring to the ability to recall those “quirky” bits of information that were of no significance to you initially. You never know what you are going to need. I’m a firm believer that so much of success is rooted in social interaction. The ability to have a good memory for personal details, past conversations, etc. can only make the impression that the things others say are very important to you (maybe more than they really are). Obviously, this is going to help social endeavors…
    A good memory is retention without effort, memorization is retention by force. I have to add, though, that memory as an important key to success only really applies if you have a memory for the right sort of sources. And you surround yourself with those sources, accordingly.

    Then, there is always Jeopardy…
    :)

  5. Travis says:

    Rote memorization – the bane of college students everywhere.

  6. Don Jones says:

    Ben, you’re right that much of formal schooling is geared toward memorization, or the ability to see if you can memorize information long enough to prove it on a test.

    One of the other more lofty goals of liberal arts schooling, especially at CMC, is the foundation that it gives graduates in preparing them to be good citizens. Understanding the roots of western civilization is no trivial matter, and made ever more so in this day and age, when the comparison to other cultural histories can be very striking indeed.

    You’ll also find more than a few good professors at CMC who’s manner of teaching is to challenge you to think for yourself, not memorize.

  7. Don Jones says:

    whose, not who’s! I should have taken that proofreading course!

  8. Myles R. Macdonald says:

    On the one hand, the ability to memorize is an ability specifically designed for school. But being able to memorize large amounts of information QUICKLY and EASILY is an extremely useful ability. I can read a text once and retain 90% of it’s information, I won’t ever HAVE to read that text again. THis saves me a lot of time that others spend in rote memorization.

  9. Andromeda says:

    I disagree that you can look everything up in the virtual rolodex — or, at least, it depends on the job. I teach, and having more of a memory would be extremely useful to me; I’m always forgetting parents’ names and which kids they go with, and there’s a ton of information I *ought* to be able to keep in my head in class (remind this kid he owes me a homework, this kid has a learning disability so I need to do x y and z with him, this kid had a big football game yesterday and I should ask him how it went)…Way more than I can keep track of.

    If I were, say, my husband the software engineer, sitting at a desk with google and seldom interacting with people face-to-face, I wouldn’t need so much of a memory (although the more details of programming languages I could memorize the better — I *could* look them up, but I could be more creative and productive with them in my head).

    Also, funny thing about memorization — you say that school depends on rote memorization — lots of people say that — yet every year I teach Latin I, Ihave to spend the better part of a quarter teaching memorization skills, because no one has ever done it and so they don’t know how (and it’s crucial in a foreign language). The honors kids tend to have memorization skills inborn, and it may be the blog commentators (who tend to be smart, I should think) relied on their memorization abilities to get through school and consequently think of school as a memorization-intense environment. And maybe other schools emphasize memorization more than mine. But I’m just not seeing it.

  10. Shefaly says:

    Too many things to say here, so I blogged instead:

    link to laviequotidienne.wordpress.com

  11. gregory william says:

    I would agree with any sentiment that schools focus too much on raw memorisation of facts and rigid procedures.

    I would also agree that I a good memory is not fundamental or even a requirement of success.

    I personally have a shocking ‘operational’ memory. I forget all kinds of day-to-day things I need to be doing. Though, I believe that not having so many little details in my head free’s up a lot of ‘headspace’ so that I can put my head in the clouds and contemplate different possibilities and longer term plans for future action.

  12. Chris Yeh says:

    A good memory can be an important advantage in business and in life…though I admit that I am biased, since I am known for having a sharp one.

    Forget memorizing meaningless facts–what about the ability to pull up meaningful facts at just the right moment?

    Example 1: Whenever I meet someone and they tell me what they’re working on, I can almost always point them to a person or resource that can be helpful. Being able to provide a recommendation in the moment is much more impactful than sending an email days later.

    I wonder how much of my reputation for being well-connected is simply a function of remembering who I know, and being able to disgorge the appropriate contact on demand.

    Example 2: If I’m working on something that requires a good deal of synthesis or strategic thinking, I find a good memory extremely helpful. It’s tough to think clearly if you have to constantly refer to notes.

    Now if you aren’t lucky enough to have a good memory, you can certainly succeed in business, but a good memory, properly applied, is certainly an asset.

  13. Stan James says:

    I agree that memorization is becoming less important. The real skill is knowing *how* to find information you need. It’s no joke that I feel so stupid when away from Google, Wikipedia, and my other online sources.

    Years ago I read about 2 business guys watching an amazing player on the Jeopardy TV Quiz Show.

    One says to the other, “Wow, that guy is so smart! How much would you pay to have him work at your company?!”

    The other replies, “About $200.”

    “What?! Per hour?”

    “No, flat price. I figure that’s about what a good encyclopedia would cost, and it does the same job.”

    (On the other hand, you can turn memorization into a career. One of Boulder’s favorite street performers has memorized all the world’s zip codes!)

  14. Ben,

    I would say that there is diminishing value to remembering random facts and figures in the age in which we live. Conversely, I think the value of being able to remember things about people is becoming more and more of a differentiator – the ability to remember names, dates, faces, human details is really important if you are in a job/career where human interaction is a key part of what you want to do…or you just want to be a good social citizen.

  15. Christine says:

    Hi, I found a reference to your post on La Vie Quotidienne.

    The way you describe our dependence on technology as an extention of our brains reminds me of a science fiction plot: the incipient emergence of the android!

    Maybe we spend so much time relying on our sticky notes that we lose our ability to pay attention in the moment. We’re always thinking about what comes next, rather than what someone is saying.

    You bring up an interesting idea.

  16. Jude says:

    Before writing, memory was more important–think of Homer.

  17. Said says:

    Nikola Tesla, one of the smartest men of the 20th century, famously kept most of the equations and theories that he used for his work inside his head. This occured to the extent that his works in progress at time of death could never be reproduced, despite his leaving behind of long journals that were notorious for lacking technical detail.

    I for one do tend to rely on the technology a lot and record trivial things like phone numbers- but memory as faculty is critical to my success and existence. I think that a sharp memory helps you to learn faster, which in turn affects your ability to make decisions and impacts in short spaces of time. A good memory improves your ability to memorize sure- but doesn’t necessarily improve your disposition towards memorization.

    That’s why people who spend long hours swatting (dilligence) in order to memorize things will generally be less successful than people who also work hard, but to whom memory and recollection come easier.

    Just my opinion.

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