Memorization and Knowledge in the Age of Google

When even the most esoteric information is only a Siri question away, why waste time memorizing anything? Neuroscience can give us some clues as to why.

Access to information has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and the science fiction concept of having virtually all human knowledge available at our fingertips is now reality. What is even more shocking is how quickly we have grown accustomed to this miracle and accept it as routine.

It has also changed our ideas about the importance of memory and content knowledge. It’s not unusual to hear people question “Why should I learn this if I can just Google it?” When even the most esoteric information is only a Siri question away, why waste time memorizing anything?

Neuroscience can give us some clues as to why.

More Content Knowledge = Better Problem Solving

The brain’s primary job is recognizing the patterns we use to navigate our daily lives and (more importantly) stay alive. What we have in our memory is the basis for spotting those patterns, and the amount of information we currently hold is a limiting factor.

There are two broad categories of memory for this work. Short-term and working memory store information for a relatively brief duration, while long-term memory (as the name implies) is held for an extended period of time. Short-term and working memory are very limited in how many pieces of information they can retain, which the researcher George Miller in 1956 called the “Magical number seven, plus or minus two.” That often includes “chunks” of connected information, so, for instance, your area code in your phone number represents one piece. Even with chunking, it’s a fairly small amount, and more recent research indicates the “magical number” may even lower.

That means if you’re trying to make sense of a topic for which you have little or no content knowledge, the volume of information you get from Alexa is irrelevant. Your brain is only able to store about a half-dozen facts, words, or numbers in your short-term storage. Imagine having a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle in a plain brown box, and you are trying to recognize what the image is by pulling out only six pieces at a time. Every time you want to take out a new piece, you have to put one back in the box. Unless the image is very simple, you’ll be hard pressed to figure it out. In the same way, it is extremely difficult to develop a deep understanding of any complex topic without having sufficient content knowledge established in long-term memory beforehand.

More Content Knowledge = Stronger Brain

Another reason memorizing information is important is simple brain health. Learning is a set of physical changes to the brain, including building more connections between neurons (gray matter) and developing stronger myelin sheaths (white matter) that improve the strength of neural signals. In the same way that exercise creates larger, stronger muscle cells, learning and memorizing new information increases the density and connections between neurons. In particular, making the effort to learn and memorize new things appears to help slow or prevent the natural cognitive decline that comes with aging. And the more challenging the learning, the more powerful the effect is.

Relying on technology to remember everything for us is easy and convenient. So is using a car to drive everywhere, rather than walking or riding a bike. And just as reliance on automobiles can have negative consequences on our physical health, delegating our memories to Siri, Alexa, and Google is potentially depriving our brains of critical exercise and development.

More Content Knowledge = Inoculation Against Misinformation

Beyond neuroscience, there is another very practical reason that developing personal content knowledge is still important. We have entered an era where people increasingly receive their daily news and information from social media. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest can attest, there is a lot of nonsense floating around in that world. For example, earlier this year I saw a Facebook post (by an organization I respect) honoring Chief Seattle/Sealth, illustrated with this image:



I'm a bit of a history nerd, and I knew right away that the image was incorrect. Chief Sealth was from a region with a completely different form of traditional dress, and the style of the photograph was from decades after his death in 1866. The organization’s mistake was understandable, as this image is all over the Internet mislabeled as Chief Sealth. My curiosity was piqued, and a little more digging found a number of additional sites identifying this as a portrait of Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne tribe. That turned out to be wrong as well, as I found Black Kettle had died just a few years after Chief Sealth. I was finally able to find that it was a portrait of a fascinating Oglala Sioux chief named Flying Hawk, who is well worth the time to read about.

We are confronted with this kind of moment all the time. Without having a certain amount of content knowledge already established in our minds, we have no tools to vet what we are viewing throughout our day. The Internet often can’t help us very well, as in this case the erroneous information is so widely disseminated that the search returns from Google have far more incorrect results than accurate ones. All Google can provide for me is what people have posted or shared—it can’t easily tell me if it’s true.

Examples such as this are annoying, but even more concerning is the amount of deliberately misleading information and news being disseminated with malicious intent. To bring neuroscience back into the discussion, these bad actors know which kinds of false stories trigger a strong emotional response, which in the moment we are exposed to it further reduces our critical thinking. There’s every reason to expect that the prevalence of this kind of weaponized misinformation will only increase, and the best defense is to have a good existing knowledge of the topic—or at least enough to know the right questions to ask and the credible resources to use for confirmation.

Developing and strengthening our own personal knowledge not only helps our brains and protects us from misinformation and manipulation, but it also helps us slow the dissemination of false stories. In the same way a vaccinated person acts as a firestop to a virus to stop its spread, we each can do the same thing with misleading information in our social networks. Solid content knowledge is more important than ever, so spending more time learning is good for you—and everyone else!

Conn McQuinn is a consultant and the owner of McQuinnable Educational Services . He has degrees in science and education, and 40 years of experience in science and technology education in both informal and formal settings, including the Pacific Science Center and Puget Sound ESD. He has served on the boards of the Washington Science Teachers’ Association and the Northwest Council for Computers in Education, presented at numerous conferences, and survived two years of being a PTA co-president. Conn is also the author of over a dozen children’s activity books, all of which are out of print and can only be found in the dusty corners of eBay.

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