We don’t know how much we don’t know

Learning by rote makes no sense. That’s shocking for all those of us who had come from the school of thought that maintained remembering all kinds of stuff by heart helps improve our memory.

The accepted modern way has it that you only need to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer. Tom Lehrer, the American mathematician-turned-comedian, was the first one to figure this new theorem out.

The result is perfectly obvious. Just check out the number of people with post-graduate university degrees these days who would not be able to calculate whether a grocery store cashier (a high-school dropout, more often than not) cheated them out of their minds.

We need to add here that we’re talking about allegedly intelligent people who have devoted their educational years to sciences. Definitely NOT the humanities. Degrees achieved for mastering drivel do not count.

Now, that we’re finished with fun and meek attempts at humour, let’s get to the more serious stuff.

A study from Columbia University puts it all on scientific footing.

First, a bit of basic information: explicit memories (those about events that happened to us, a.k.a. episodic), as well as general facts and information (semantic), that is, the stuff that we learn, concentrate in three important areas of the brain: the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala. Implicit memories, such as motor memories, rely on the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Short-term working memory relies most heavily on the prefrontal cortex.

A study to end all studies

The Columbians examined 350 students and found that even if they learnt huge chunks of text by heart, areas of their brains that control memory haven’t improved one iota.

Whether 350 students constitute a large enough sample to make authoritative statements about this finding being conclusive for the entire humanity would be best left to statisticians. Suffice it to say that the Columbians’ conclusion has been accepted as fact of life.

Of course, no scientific paper is complete without caveats and other warnings. Precisely what the Columbians and others did: if you learn something by rote and have fun doing it, the result would be different. It’s only when you’re forced into this kind of studies that your short-term memory suffers. On top of it, you will have issues trying to remember anything else.

The published papers never explained why the scientists concentrated on learning poems. How about multiplication tables? Or the Mendeleyev table of elements?

The scientists at Columbia (and elsewhere) only offered ways how to learn these texts painlessly, concentrating more on the rhythms and rhymes rather than meanings. It’s the same when you try to write poems: rhyming, in and of itself, either it comes to you naturally, or it doesn’t. If you try and fail, not to worry. Even if you worked hard and succeeded, it would not help your brain to become more efficient, effective, even.

Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neurologist, introduced a new pathological condition into an already long list of complaints humanity lives with. It is known in his native German language as “digitale Demenz,” digital dementia in verbatim translation.

While video games may improve your immediate attention skills, Spitzer writes that overuse of digital technology results in the breakdown of cognitive abilities. Simply put: if we overuse technology, short-term memory pathways will start to deteriorate from underuse.

Which means that the Columbians and their ilk are seriously endangering us all. After all, their claim that knowledge of facts is much less useful than knowing where to find them is precisely the most dangerous part of what has been happening the last few decades.

No need to train your memory, the Columbians and their friends insist. That’s what search engines are for. These days, you don’t have to be able to read, even: just ask an automated voice on your smartphone, and you’ll hear the answer within seconds.

Of course, the answer will only deal with a fact, or, better still, a factoid that you had asked about. Context? What do you need context for?

This approach may help explain why so many people believe the hoax known as Covid-19 (nicknamed by doubters Covid-1984). They are overwhelmed by the sheer avalanche of numbers government officials throw at them, without bothering to ask for context, such as: how do this year’s numbers compare to previous years? How about the demographics (age distribution) of both morbidity (number of people falling ill) and mortality (number of fatal outcomes based on number of ill people)?

And never mind the serious loss of memory that prevents most from remembering that the World Health Organization (WHO) a mere dozen years ago changed its basic criteria to judge the spread of diseases in a way that makes it perfectly impossible to arrive at such decisions.

Forever young

Why it is that so many people have frightful difficulties with the sad fact of getting older as time goes on remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Many have been trying to figure out ways how to remain young at least mentally. Playing chess, they said, or figuring out crossword puzzles is the easiest way.

Not so, come reports about the voice of academia from Edinburg University.

The Scots claim that physical exercise helps much more. That, at least, is what newspapers have been reporting about their findings.

Except: those reports tend to mix apples with oranges. The Scots, kilts and bagpipes and all, only said that physical exercise may be of help to people aged 60 and more.

They never denied the importance of mental exercises (such as chess or crossword puzzles), they only said that a bit of mild aerobic exercise seemed to have slowed down the process of our brains drying out.

Some swear upon a somewhat unusual exercise, a.k.a. “going blind.” Close your eyes and do things you’re used to do as if you’ve lost your sight. Start with brushing your teeth with your eyes firmly closed, and move on to walking through your home.

Critics say the only result would be more concussions. Something in that, too.

Same thing, critics say, happens when you switch from being a lifelong right-handed person into a left-hander for a time.

Critics say such physical activities are of no help.

Except: experience shows that daily walks, even if only around the block, can help us concentrate. So does reading books (not newspaper or magazines) regularly, at least an hour a day. Why books and not newspapers or magazines? Because thinking of human fates and life stories, establishing mental and spiritual contact with them, is more useful than any factoid newspapers or magazines have to offer.

Eat foods that contain cellulose to enhance your diet. Try to learn new languages.

And stop believing that all information you need is at your fingertips, just a few clicks on your browser away. Meaning: make your brain work.

Not your computer or smartphone. Your brain.

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