The Absurdity of Memorization

April 2017

“Never memorize something you can look up.” — Albert Einstein

My fourth grade math curriculum was comprised of mainly one thing: multiplication tables. Essentially all of the math-allocated portion of the day was dedicated to drilling a set of seemingly arbitrary sets of numbers into our skulls. After a couple months of training, one of my peers asked our teacher why it was necessary to memorize our multiplication tables. Our teacher responded with, “Well, it’s not like you’re going to keep a laminated reference sheet with you at all times!”

So that’s exactly what he did.

To my knowledge, twelve years later, he still has a laminated multiplication table reference sheet folded up in his wallet. This serves no practical utility (especially given the fact he was still required to memorize his multiplication tables), but he did it to make a point: you can always look it up.

My fellow fourth grader laminated in defiance around 2004, but his point stands even stronger today. We each carry with us a pseudo-infinitely large “multiplication table” in our pockets at all times, leaving the modern need for memorization the smallest it’s ever been. Phone numbers, directions, conversion units, the air-speed velocity of an African swallow, you name it. Anything we can Google, we also efficiently eliminate from our brains.

Of course, some things are still crucial to memorize, namely in the case of an emergency where an internet-connected device is unavailable. A few important phone numbers, your social, stuff along those lines. And sometimes it’s wildly efficient to memorize something you use on a daily basis. For example, it would be prudent for a scientist who works frequently with a certain chemical compound to memorize its molar mass, or other commonly needed characteristics. But 99.5% of information can be cleanly purged without ill-effects.

I think this is fantastic. Intelligence isn’t a measurement of how well you can regurgitate information. Intelligence is a measure of what you DO with that information, and your creative solutions from a unique outlook. If we’ve built machines that are wildly efficient at organizing and indexing data, why bother trying to do the same? We should reserve our brain capacity for something only we humans can do: think critically. The information age isn’t making us stupid, it’s making it easier to be smart.