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Precious Brain Resources

·4 mins

We’re told early on in life that memorization is the path to success. Education systems seem to be largely based on this idea. Most school lessons involve some degree of memorization, and creativity is generally discouraged in core curriculums.

I’m pretty sure this is a bad idea, because there’s not really that much benefit to memorization. Instead, I think critical thinking and the ability to quickly find information is much more valuable.

Take, for example, the humble pocket calculator. When I was growing up, we were in the early era of the internet, and computers (and calculators) were still considered a bit of an oddity in many ways.

A nifty Casio calculator

Some people considered using a calculator cheating in math class, because when they grew up they didn’t have calculators and they had to use a slide rule or an abacus. Their argument, as I understood it, was that you wouldn’t learn how to do math properly if you just punched the numbers into the calculator.

I would say that argument hasn’t aged well, because hardly anyone does math by pen and paper in the “real world” and somehow society hasn’t collapsed as a result. Amusingly, this battle still plays out in schools today, though it’s evolved a great deal. Some schools go as far as to give children laptops in class for their schoolwork, because pencil and paper has mostly been replaced by text editors.

I think, for the most part, this is sensible. I don’t think we should stop teaching children how to write with a pen or pencil on a sheet of paper, but for the most part that’s a skill which has remarkably little value today outside of filling out forms at the DMV or the post office.

The brain is not infinite #

I like to think about the brain this way: we have an incredible amount of capacity, but we’re inherently constrained by the number of neurons, and we can only store so much information within a given volume of brain mass. Thus, there’s a lot of trivia that we don’t really need to memorize or retain.

In the context of programming, examples of things not worth retaining are esoteric APIs, programming language syntax, detailed specifications, and so on. The reason these aren’t worth retaining is that they’re incredibly easy to reference as needed. We can kind of treat the internet like a collective consciousness with memory that (usually) persists accurately through time.

It’s true that the internet rots over time, but thankfully we have Wikipedia and Stackoverflow, which have both managed to keep their content without requiring a paywall. One reason for the demise of most “news” outlets is their inability to find a way to monetize eyeballs for ephemeral information. Most “news” is a read once type of content that rarely ages well.

Retaining what matters #

Books are a great media for information. I read a lot of books (though, to be fair, I mostly consume books via audio these days, because it’s more convenient) and in particular I like reading older books, and I’m always surprised by how little the world seems to have changed based on how people describe the world of today versus yesterday.

The problem with books is they are time consuming and not really searchable like the internet.

Full glass of water

If we think about our brains as having finite capacity, we should utilize that capacity in the most effective way possible. Memorizing random facts, details, trivia, is not really that useful, provided the things we’re memorizing are easily recalled using modern technology. You don’t need to know every single detail of the syntax of the programming language you use every day so long as you know the 80th percentile of the important stuff, and for everything else you can have a tab open in your browser to the reference documentation for the relevant subject.

I suspect if we spend too much time worrying about how much trivia we collect in our brains and not enough time practicing our critical thinking and information assessment skills we risk becoming the calculator without the ability to have original thoughts or create new ideas.

I should mention that’s not really based on any evidence or anything, just a musing from my experiences. To put it another way: the most creative and productive people I’ve known weren’t creative and productive because they memorized all the facts and figures of whatever their area of expertise was. To the contrarary, they tend to be people who actually don’t know that much because having too much information can make it harder to have new ideas as you get stuck thinking that there’s nothing but what you already know.