In days gone by, my wife and I made it our practice to eat dinner at a neighborhood clam bar, a tavern that served the freshest fish in town. Nestled among warehouses and small factories on Niagara Street, a block from the river, it was the kind of place where the waitresses never wrote down an order. Once they knew what the regulars liked, they wouldn’t bother to ask again; they would just bring out the usual. If they were footsore, they would sometimes sit down with us to share some gripes and giggles. The local guys, grain shovelers and fork-lift drivers, would gather there after a shift for beer.
More often than not, one of these fellows would approach us with an arcane question: “Who was the sixteenth president?” he’d ask. I’d tell him it was Abraham Lincoln. He’d want to know “which state has the fewest electoral votes?” “Delaware?” I’d answer. “But, it could be Alaska, or maybe Montana.” He’d nod conspiratorially and make his way back to the front room. Word had gotten around that I was a historian. Historians are supposed to know things. And in that era, before everybody could access Wikipedia on a mobile device, a good memory came in handy. I chalked up his routine to the demands of the deep nightly barstool deliberations.
One evening, he approached us with this question: “I was just wondering, in your personal opinion, which eighth-century philosopher would you say…” This was too much. I said it was probably the Venerable Bede. But I also told him I doubted that he was “just wondering” about some Northumbrian monk who’d been dead for, what, thirteen hundred years? “Nah,” he said. “Really, I just wanted to get your read on it.” I asked “my read on what?”
So I followed him out to the bar to find out what, and there I found the crew pondering the final question on Jeopardy!. They’d been betting. The idea dawned that I was the source of their friend’s luck. I looked good for the co-conspirator. I wagged my finger. One fellow yelled, “You S.O.B!” Another, who by then had me in a bear hug, said “Okay, I’ve got one to ask you, wise guy. If you’re so smart, how come you eat here?” “Fair question,” I had to admit.
The episode came to mind this week when university researchers reported their findings that Internet users tended to rely less on memory than those who accessed their own recollection. That “inflation” of web-use (to use the researchers’ term) stands to reason; it’s an astonishing luxury that we take for granted today. More surprisingly, they also found that three in ten of the subjects who were accustomed to resorting to the Internet for retrieving facts would not even try to access their own memories. Today, a surprising fraction won’t trouble themselves to remember driving directions, family members’ birthdays, or friends’ phone numbers. Increasingly, nowadays, we bypass our own grey matter and directly access information that Google stores as electronic bits somewhere outside our heads.
Until very recently, we relied on mental mischief to help us remember. We sometimes still put facts to music, playfully. It’s an old trick. Likely you learned the alphabet by singing it, for example. Mnemonics like the alphabet song stretch back to a time long before people had ready access to notepads or PowerPoint, before most could read, in truth. Memory specialists like troubadours and praise singers—the rhapsodes of Greece, the griots of Africa, and the bards of Ireland—depended upon rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and other wordplay to aid their prodigious recall. Clerics chanted religious texts because singing, which adds an emotional dimension, helped them remember.
Tricks helped Greek and Roman orators deliver prodigious speeches without notes. For example, they imagined traveling through a “memory house,” a familiar building that would carry some item or fact as signage on every architectural detail. Every step on a staircase, every column, and every lintel would be labeled or illustrated. Acronyms and rhymes still help us remember sets of facts: “every good boy does fine” cues novice piano students to the notes of the g-clef; “Roy G. Biv” sequences the visible spectrum; the word “homes” tags the Great Lakes, though against the flow; those studying for their bar exam remember that BEDONI defines burglary as “breaking and entry of a dwelling of others in the night with intent [to commit a felony]”; med students remember the arteries that branch into the armpit by the first letters of words in the phrase “screw the lawyer, save a patient”; and first time screwdriver-users will recite “righty tighty, lefty loosey… righty tighty, lefty loosey.”
Actors know that memory improves with practice at memorizing. It’s less clear, though, that the faculty of memory suffers with disuse as psychologists once believed. Though our brains are so capacious that storage rarely runs low, recovery will fade as we age. And the speed of retrieval slows with time too, as I discovered when I found that I could not beat Jeopardy! champ, Ken Jennings, to the punch at the answer to the Daily Double.
Oh, I can still recite the Gettysburgh Address from memory, as well as the suscipiat and the verses of Leigh Hunt’s “Abu ben Adam” (“May his tribe increase!”). But the skill is not so much in demand these days. I should also tell you that historians will quickly wear out their welcome if friends invite them into a game of Trivial Pursuit.
New technology makes it less urgent that we commit facts to memory. That same technology serves to subtly undermine command of the facts. If you need to know that the “K” in James K. Polk’s middle name was Knox like the Fort and not Knowles like Beyoncé, you can look it up on your smartphone.
Yet it’s too early to count out personal memory. We still benefit by comfort with a knowledge base. A well-stocked private information-cellar (however musty) provides good protection against trumped-up stories. Early in their training, professional historians pledge their allegiance to facts and to honest interpretation. We learn not to play games with the truth. I find that this habit of mind continues to come in handy at a time when collective amnesia and easy propagation of rumor allow so many bullshit artists to play so fast and so loose with the facts.