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.)

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