The Nuances of Memory
Written in response to: A Letter to a Student
I’m writing in response to Peter Holbrook to question the ideas that knowing things means being able to recall them, that knowledge is the necessary first step to thought, and that information is anywhere near as important as thinking. I understand the allure of believing memory is the precursor to everything. Until nine months ago I would have said exactly that. Then I got a concussion with ongoing symptoms including memory impairment, and it has taught me I was wrong.
Let’s begin in one of the many places where we agree: knowledge does as you say, continually return to memory. Even today, post-concussion, regardless of whether I’m walking to the train station or writing up my research, memory is key. This is more the case for me than most because I am also totally blind, and have been since birth. Walking to my local train station is entirely an act of memory. If I walk to the end of my street and then find that my memory for what to do next is blank, I can’t simply look around and know that the train station is just across the road. It’s an anxiety-provoking moment of a kind that happens to me dozens of times a day now. In contrast, though writing up my research requires a similar marshalling of very different facts, I can, albeit at a slower pace than pre-concussion me, do it effectively.
I’ve devoted a significant amount of time and thinking to discerning the differences – how is it that post-concussion, at least as far as the results of my memory goes, my academic life is enjoyable and manageable, while the rest of my life is fraught and unwieldy? I think the reason is the same thing that is in fact what makes you feel as if your experience of the world is ‘augmented’ when you’ve learned something. It is not that you can recall a fact. It is, at the risk of sounding like I’m talking about US foreign policy rather than the structure of memory, that you know that you know. Standing at the end of my street I really don’t know what to do next. Researching Australian disability literature, on the other hand, I know that I know the information I need and, if I can’t recall the details, I know where to find them. For sure, retrieving a fact from memory is pleasurable. However, I can tell you from direct experience that, when you can’t recall a fact but you know that you know it and where to find it, it’s just as pleasurable, and equal in result. It most certainly is not the catastrophe you imagine it to be when your memory is fully functioning.
All of this is not just a matter of theoretical inquiry, as important as that is. It has real implications for how we think of ourselves and each other, and the rules we then create and enforce on that basis. As your letter so definitively demonstrates, people often believe that memory impairment is ‘tragic’, and that ‘the result is confusion, dehumanization, and anomie’. Undeniably these things are a possibility for human beings, memory impaired or not, but the effects of memory impairment vary greatly, even for the same person on the same day. There are many places between what we are led to believe is a typical memory, that can recall most facts at most times, and a memory that can’t remember anything ever. Many of us, whether it’s through conditions like concussion or multiple sclerosis or myalgic encephalomyelitis, or the conditions that people incorrectly assume are only part of old age like stroke or dementia, spend a significant part of our lives in these in-between places. Additionally, and importantly for our purposes, it’s possible for part of someone’s life to work smoothly, even with a significant memory impairment, and so the conversation around memory, especially in academia, needs to include these nuances.
Whether someone does or does not recall a fact when they are asked to proves nothing either way. As an undergraduate twenty years ago I can tell you for a fact that all my recall of facts for exams proved was that I knew what to study to get the grades I wanted. It most certainly did not prove I’d worked hard, or had integrated the information in any way. Likewise, if you were to ask me a question about the research I’m now doing and I couldn’t recall a fact I wanted to include in my response, all you’d know is that I couldn’t recall that fact at that moment. You wouldn’t know the huge amount of effort I put in to my project, or that I might’ve been triggered to recall the fact if you’d asked the question in a slightly different way.
I agree completely that facts are not trivial. I don’t agree, however, that ‘a necessary first step’ to thinking is ‘the acquirement of actual information, facts, data’. I think you were correct a bit further on when you said ‘the two capabilities, knowing and thinking, go together’. I would add that, to avoid fact being trivialised, knowing should not be separated from thinking. Since I’m researching Australian disability literature, the first example of what happens to a fact when it is not thought through that comes to mind for me is Henry Lawson’s deafness. I’ve found this fact in almost every Lawson biography I’ve skimmed through. And yet, for all the academic writing on him, there’s been no analysis of the influence his deafness, which he had from the age of fourteen, had on his writing.
Thinking, however, can be separated from knowing, and while I wouldn’t say that ‘all’ the important stuff takes place in the realm of analysis, I’d say most of it does. Going back to me at the end of my street, being unable to remember what to do next: I can reason that, since there’s a row of shops to my right, and a road I don’t know directly ahead of me; the next step in getting to the train station is most likely to cross the road to my left that I’m familiar with. Going back to you and your student: it is the analysis you so eloquently outlined in your letter, and no doubt present equally as well in your class, that makes the facts relevant and useful. Going forward to a possible time when cultural memory is being taken over by digital memory: it can only be observed and prevented by analysis.
Another area where we completely agree is the value of rote learning. Regardless of age, the kind of information involved, or even the likelihood that you’ll be able to recall it later, memorising increases your chances of remembering. Having said that, I think rote learning is more effective in some educational contexts than others. I have never reflected on my undergraduate days and thought, ‘I wish I’d done more rote learning!’ I have, however, thought this about my primary school experience, and the early years of high school. At university I wish I’d learned more analysis of various kinds.
Finally however, despite the fact that much of your letter is in defence of rote learning, you say near the beginning that the student ‘objected that the multiple-choice exam questions for a course I and another colleague were convening on English Poetry were “ridiculous” in “the twenty-first century”’. This sounds like your student wasn’t objecting to rote learning, but to being examined on rote learning. If this was their point, or even if it wasn’t, I think it’s a reasonable one. Reflecting again on my undergraduate days, when I was being examined on what I’d rote learned I promptly forgot the information afterwards. When I was examined on analysis I retained a lot more of the information, and in fact felt inspired to rote learn without being directed to. Perhaps, instead of asking ‘when was Beethoven born?’ and ‘when was Wordsworth born?’ you could ask ‘Beethoven and Wordsworth were both born in 1770, what is the significance of this information to the course of European culture?’ This is a question that can have either an essay or multiple choice answer, it tests the understanding that is easier to recall and also ‘highly significant’ to your course, and it may well be a way of finding common ground between you and your student.
All best wishes,