Easy is not your friend: Memorization

A common hurdle for gifted people, particularly the young, is getting over the big easy. No, I don’t mean New Orleans. I’m talking about the ease with which some gifted students accomplish basic academic work. This can seriously cramp your intellectual style if you’re not careful.

I experienced this problem primarily in three different ways:

  • Easy memorization
  • Easy comprehension
  • Easy imitation

Today I’m writing about memorization.

Easy memorization

Until my late teens, I possessed an eidetic memory (sometimes incompletely called a photographic memory). By this I mean a memory that recalled things as I experienced them. For example, I could frequently recall a conversation word-for-word days after it occurred; if I read a book, I retained the content because I could visualize the pages (and where I was when I read it, and how it felt at the time, and when I was interrupted, etc.). If I read it repeatedly, I could retain the content for a very long time indeed (years, in some cases).

This made certain kinds of tests extremely easy. For example, I never studied for a spelling test, I simply looked at the page. I avoided learning to properly read sheet music for nearly a year by getting my piano teacher to demonstrate a piece of music, and then playing it back from memory—including where she turned the sheets. (She caught on, fortunately, and steadfastly refused to demonstrate thereafter until I first played a piece myself.) Any course testing on material in the textbook was easy to pass.

Unfortunately, memorization is not comprehension, even for the gifted. And faking a skill, even if you fake it as well as another person competently performs it, does not enrich your skill set. There were aspects of music theory I only learned by learning to read music properly.

Richard Feynman had a lot to say about the difference between memorization and comprehension. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he described a demonstration he gave at a school overly focused on memorization:

“By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter—how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.”

So I did it. Brrrrrrrup—I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed…”

I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature—what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.

“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.” ‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.”

…Finally, I said that I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.

The problem with easy memorization is that you miss much of the context. To read a text once, in order to answer a test correctly, is certainly possible. But simply because that’s all you have to do to obtain a good grade is an insufficient reason to limit yourself. A person with a smaller capacity for memorization may very well comprehend a text more, because in order to retain it they read and wrote more about it. Along the way they created deeper associations and connections with other data that I, in my youthful pride, did not create because I simply “knew.” I put scare-quotes around “knew” because I don’t believe mere memorization provides knowledge, only data.

Repeated readings of a text, or the writing of notes, allows the brain to integrate mere data more deeply, to know it from different perspectives. You may be able to do this at a superficial level. You may be able to fake a deep understanding of a subject because of your knack for turning over facets of a concept. But you’re kidding yourself if you think that even your most complex take on a subject upon a single reading is anything close to the depth of understanding you can grant yourself by the process of actively re-reading, writing, and questioning the material.

This matters not only because it’s ethically questionable to use your brain only as much as necessary to meet the minimum requirements of school or work. It matters because not using your brain well will make it harder to use it well later in life. It matters because gifts such as an exceptional memory are not guaranteed to last. And it matters because the process, the journey, is every bit as important as the destination. After all, the process is where we spend most of our lives.


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