Why Memorizing Matters More Than You Think

And What You Miss When You Don't

Nearly all those who’ve gone through our education system have heard the same message in one form or another: memorizing isn’t important, learning how to think is what really matters. At best the role of memorization has been relegated to the non-important and at worst, denigrated.

One of my goals this year is to memorize the book of Hebrews in the bible. It was overwhelming when I first considered doing it and frankly, I still find it daunting.  I think one of the main reasons I finally made the commitment is because a good friend of mine joined me.  And what I’ve experienced over the last couple of weeks while working on this goal has been surprising: it’s how much my neglect of memory discipline has impacted my thinking ability.

Critical Thinking Skills

Now I totally agree that the ability to think critically is….well…..critical, and that critical thinking skills are to be emphasized.  Couple that with the mind-bending technology we have at our fingertips that gives us access to just about anything you can type into Google, it would indeed seem that memorization of rote facts and content is now passée. Or is it?

Since our modern methods of data capture allow us to archive just about every sound, image or thought we care to record, we have it covered when it comes to archiving information.  That gives us comfort knowing that future generations will have what they need to keep moving forward. After all, civilization is nothing more than the externalization of our thoughts and memories.  Our technology also empowers us with the ability to retrieve just about any information we need in a split second and at the touch of a keystroke. So what could be missing and what else could we want? As it turns out, plenty.

Why Memorization Matters

Any benefit or gain usually involves a trade-off of some sort and it’s no different when it comes to modern methods of recording and storing information. So much so that many of us rely solely on our notebooks or devices to be our brain.  Here are some the “greater” benefits you lose when you let memory discipline go out the window:

  • Greater creativity.
  • Greater mental agility, stamina and overall “mental fitness”.
  • Greater neural synapse growth, number, and strength.
  • Greater ability to integrate information into new concepts and ideas.
  • Greater recall and integration of  important ideas, facts and details during discussion.
  • Greater ability to build longer-lasting memories faster and less painfully.
  • Great brain health and less age related decline.

While this is simply a a short-list and by no means exhaustive, it’s certainly attractive in a day and age marked by the early mental decline of so many.

What The Ancients Achieved

Prior to the printing press, most people had to rely almost exclusively on memory to communicate what was important to each other. And while writing seems to have been around as long as man has,  the tools needed to do it weren’t convenient(think chisel, stone, papyrus, quill,  etc.) and belong only to the learned and wealthy.  Writing back then was primarily used to record and transmit all that was important from generation to generation, not to serve as an external brain like it usually is today. But that’s not all.

Memory way-back-when was considered to be ars memorativa, or the “art of memory”. It was also considered to be the foundation of character, virtue and learning.  It was how:

  • Roman Senators delivered long speeches.
  • Limited copies of books were disseminated and shared via recitation with those who would never see a copy or couldn’t read.
  • Laws were understood by an uneducated populace.
  • Technical skills that often required lengthly processes were mastered and applied.

To deny the remarkable achievements of the ancients is simply chronological snobbery.

Lessons For Today

I agree with David Allen of GTD fame that our brains are made for thinking and not placeholders of information. That’s only if the term “placeholders” means transitory to-do lists, trivia and other stress-producing factoids that can be classified as minutia.  On the other hand, if it’s rich information, content and thoughts that have been refined by the minds of many over the millennia then I passionately disagree; let’s not confuse the two. In fact, its the latter that gives us the foundation and fodder we need to think critically and creatively in the first place.

Current brain science and the achievements of the ancients send us a strong message that the process, discipline and content of memorization are important.  Are we listening?

The real issue is how people of yester-year developed their mental fitness, memory capacity and integrated it into their critical and creative thinking. What was their secret?  As it turns out, there is one so stay tuned!

How much meaningful memorization have you done lately? It matters more than you think.

Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.