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Want to Get Smarter? Memorize More Stuff (Even in a World of Google and ChatGPT)


Jun 27, 2023

Back in the day, children spent a lot of time memorizing dates, figures, and formulas. Then the internet came along and made that seem quaint. I memorized "in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" back in elementary school. I wonder if my daughter will be told to just Google it

Generative A.I. tools like ChatGPT seem likely to supercharge the cultural shift away from memorization. Stringing a bunch of keywords into a search box is easy. Literally asking a robot for a fact in everyday language is next-level simple (a fact chatbot tutoring companiesare rushing to take advantage of). 

Entrepreneurs have a lot on their minds on a good day. I suspect many may see these trends and decide to offload more basic facts to the giant collective memory bank that is the internet. So should we all bow our heads and say a few words to mark the passing of memorization? 

Not according to at least one thinker who recently made a forceful case that the old-fashioned process of storing facts in brains can actually make you much smarter and better at your job.

The secret to one team of geniuses? Memorization


As she recently explained on her blog, Pearl Leff, a software engineer at Stripe, was first acquainted with the power of memorization when she worked with a team of "genius" Israeli engineers. "They were more productive than any division I've ever been in, including Faang tech companies," she marveled. When she worked up the courage to ask one of them why, she got a straightforward if surprising explanation -- they had been forced to memorize a lot of stuff. 

"They had been software engineers together in the intelligence units of their country's military. Their military intelligence computers hadn't been connected to the internet, and if they wanted to look something up online, they had to walk to a different building across campus. Looking something up online on Stack Overflow was a major operation. So they ended up reading reference manuals and writing down or memorizing the answers to their questions because they couldn't look up information very easily. Over time, the knowledge accumulated," she explains. 

Which is all well and good for computer programmers, but what does this have to do with the rest of us? Leff goes on to argue that memorizing facts helps you organize your knowledge, put together key facts, understand the world better, and ultimately be smarter. 

The more you know, the faster you can think (and learn)

Her complete post is well worth a read, but the essence of her argument is simple. You can't look up a fact you don't know exists. Leff uses the example of geography to illustrate her point. "You can look up any country on Google, but if you've never had to memorize approximately where they are, either voluntarily or in school, you'll never get a sense of why things are the way they are," she writes. 

Why is tiny Oman a powerful country? Because it controls the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world's oil passes. Why did Russia invade Ukraine? That's a complicated question, but it becomes easier to answer if you know that one of Russia's very few warm-water ports is located in Crimea in southern Ukraine. 

You may think this kind of knowledge is only of interest to foreign policy buffs (and anyone who buys gas), but the principle applies to any area of thinking and reasoning. The more data points you can easily call to mind, the more likely you are to connect important dots and spot underlying patterns. Google (or a helpful A.I. assistant) can help fill in the details, but if you don't have the basics memorized, you'll never know what to ask.  

Knowing facts already also helps you learn more facts faster. "Memorizing information gives you a concrete organizational scaffolding and context in which to put new information," Leff insists.

Both Elon Musk and Bill Gates have made essentially the same point. If you want to learn faster, both super-smart billionaires recommend you memorize enough dates, concepts, or ideas to have a basic map of the field you're studying in your head. Then it's far easier to attach new facts to that framework. 

These "old-fashioned" skills aren't going out of style

These arguments might not exactly come as welcome news to those of us old enough to remember memorizing maps or torturing ourselves with flash cards of physics equations (if any of my fellow sufferers from Mr. A's 12th-grade honors physics class are reading this, hello). But it's hard to read Leff's essay and not come away convinced by her conclusions. 

Technology can make skills like memorization and even writing feel like they might soon become obsolete. Leff's essay is another healthy reminder that, no matter how impressive our tech gets, that's unlikely. Tech tools can eliminate donkeywork and make us more efficient, but they can't teach us to think intelligently and independently. For that, old-fashioned skills like deep reading, long-form writing, and straight-up memorization are still very much required. 

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