On a camping trip this year, I asked my brother if he’s memorized anything, and he was able to recite “Jabberwocky” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” no problem. He recites something to the kids every night.My parents can recall and recite all kinds of poems all the way through.James Freeman wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal back in August that caught my eye. His son had been spouting sports trivia, and Freeman wondered if the obsession was positive, negative, or neutral. So he quizzed some experts. One neurobiologist encouraged it. “The more mental gymnastics you do, the more agile and the quicker your brain becomes.”Howard Gardner was less enthusiastic. “I frankly doubt that memorization of trivia in youth is a significant contributor to easier memorization of materials as you get older,” Gardner said. “The kind of memory needed with age is not of isolated facts but of organized structures of meaning.”A neuroscientist suggested that trivia required reading, and any reading “gets a lot more circuits involved” in the brain than simply watching television.Mr. E.D. Hirsch suggested (with a nod to Keats) that “every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer.” Then Hirsch added, regarding the trivia focus, “it means you like to do something intensely, and you’re more likely to be successful in life” when you do.Well, in response to that story, someone wrote a letter to the editor dated, I think, August 13, 2008. I couldn’t find it online, so I tapped it out here.”Memorizing Sports Facts can Prepare a Brain for Life”
On reading James Freeman’s “Raising Bob Costas: Is Memorizing Sports Trivia Good for the Brain?” (de gustibus, Aug. 8), I was reminded of the late Linus Pauling’s thoughts on the role of memory in creativity. He believed strongly that memory of isolated facts lay at the core of intellect and creativity.Dr. Pauling taught first-year chemistry at Cal Tech for many years. All of his exams were closed book, and the students complained bitterly. Why should they have to memorize Boltzmann’s constant when they could easily look it up when they needed it? I paraphrase Mr. Pauling’s response: I was always amazed at the lack of insight this showed. It’s what you have in your memory bank–what you can recall instantly–that’s important. If you have to look it up, it’s worthless for creative thinking.He proceeded to give an example. In the mid-1930s, he was riding a train from London to Oxford. To pass the time, he came across an article in the journal, Nature, arguing that proteins were amorphous globs whose 3D structure could never be deduced. He instantly saw the fallacy in the argument–because of one isolated stray fact in his memory bank–the key chemical bond in the protein backbone did not freely rotate, as was argued. Linus knew from his college days that the peptide bond has to be rigid and coplanar.He began doodling, and by the time he reached Oxford, he had discovered the alpha helix. A year later, his discovery was published in Nature. In 1954, Linus won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. The discovery lies at the core of many of the great advances in medicine and pharmacology that have occurred since.Mr. Freeman, encourage your kid’s appetite for memorizing, whatever form it takes. I’m with Linus–that skill is a gift that lies at the core of intelligence and creativity. (Samuel E. George, M.D., Santa Clara, Calif.)
I love that story. Facts were on hand to feed Dr. Pauling’s creativity because he’d taken the time to memorize.That seems to suggest the impact of memorization on learning, education, and creativity.But how about a Christian taking time to store Scripture in the long-term memory bank?A friend of mine from church told me her family has been working on memorizing the entire book of James. The Belgian Wonder’s late grandmother had also memorized James and was working on 1 Peter the last time we visited her. A man in Belgium memorized the entire gospel of Mark.A few weeks ago, our pastor said he noticed that there is an age–approximately his–that represents a breaking point: People older than him can almost always recite Psalm 23 by heart; younger than that, and it’s rare if they can.What about you? Have you made memory work a priority in your (and your family’s) life?How important do you think it is to prioritize memorization?And, if you feel like sharing, what have you stuffed in your memory bank? What’s in you?Note: Ann V. has written on this subject of memorization here. Anyone else? Drop linkage in the comments!