Are we losing the ability to remember, or are we lazy?

We should try to remember some things, if only for the sake of having fitter brains, writes Rym Ghazal

There’s a famous quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein: “Never memorise something that you can look up.”

There you are, standing in front of a room full of people, pouring out your heart, presenting your life’s work. It’s a presentation you may have worked on for days, but the sad truth is that, by tomorrow, the audience will have forgotten most of what you said.

Actually, researchers say that within one hour – yes, just one – people will have forgotten about half of the information you presented.

A good way to gauge this is to ask friends who have recently taken workshops and courses – especially the in-vogue ones such as leadership, mindfulness and happiness – what they have learnt. They will be able to mention only a few points, even if they have taken many courses.

We forget information unless it has a practical application and we make the effort to retain it – by repetition or using other memorising or mnemonic techniques.

There are many studies on memory, including the famous “forgetting curve” posited by 19th-century German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus, which looks at the decline of memory retention over time.

Do most of us even remember half the stuff we learnt back in school? There are even supplications in Islam that students say before exams, asking God’s help to remember all the information they have studied.

Given the hustle and bustle of life today, when we are bombarded by information and notifications all the time, it is no surprise that many of us forget even what we did yesterday.

Another common scenario: your smartphone dies, so your friend offers you her mobile for you to finish your call. Then you realise that, well, you don’t actually know the number of the person you were speaking to because it was saved directly on to your phone, and you haven’t even looked at the digits since you first keyed them in.

We are so used to using our mobiles as contact books that many of us don’t even know our partner’s, children’s or parents’ numbers.

There’s a famous quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein: “Never memorise something that you can look up.” It is said to be related to a time when a colleague asked him for his phone number, and he reached for his telephone directory to look it up.

Of course, if the story is true, that was Einstein and he had better and more complicated things to remember. He didn’t need to clutter his mind with things that could easily be looked up.

Since none of us are Einstein, we should put more effort into memorising and retaining information. Some studies have shown that memory-related games are healthy exercise for sharpening our brains and can help fortify it against memory related illnesses such as dementia.

Today, we can look up anything and everything online, and so, we end up retaining nothing. I did a test in which I forced myself to memorise telephone numbers and, while it was quite irritating in the beginning, it got easier with time. It’s the same thing with relying on a calculator. If we force ourselves to do the maths, it reawakens our own ability to calculate.

At a recent gathering of poets of different ages, each person was asked to recite one of their favourite poems.

All of those over 40 were able to recite line after line of the Arab literature world’s most difficult poems purely from memory. The younger ones had to check their smartphones for the saved lines of the poems they liked. One even had to check her own poetry book to recite something she had written.

While memorising without understanding is not helpful, it was, for a long time, how students were taught at schools. It is still important for a region that prides itself on its oral history to encourage the new generation to know by heart some of its most important literature. But understanding is key.

One of the older poets said: “The poems I know are not just something abstract, they are referenced whenever a situation calls for an Arab proverb or poem.

“When I want, for example, to insult someone, I insult them poetically from our heritage. And when I want to seduce someone, I use the most romantic lines I learnt as a teenager,” he laughed.

His advice: if you feel something as you are learning it, it will be remembered.

Whatever the case, memories remain flawed, and whether we like it or not, we should try to remember some things, if only for the sake of having “fitter” brains.

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @arabainmau