Isn’t memory obsolete?

If you’re old enough, you may dimly recall a quaint time when people remembered each other’s phone numbers.  To contact my true love, I had to do something more than speed dial 1 or tap a screen.   Once upon a time we used to have to remember things because we didn’t have everywhere-access to the internet to tell us where to eat, how to find the hospital, remind us what nasty thing our BFF just said about us on Facebook. We didn’t have apps to tell us the Costa Rican bird we just heard was a three-wattled bellbird

And once upon a time before that people used to have to sing epic poems because they had no means of writing down their history and myths.

But beyond a certain contrarian steampunk retro silliness, why bother to commit things to memory, to know then by heart?

1) I think it’s just a shame not to use all that brain-jelly that was set up to store memory, to remember, to do its work of shuttling sparks between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.  I still think it’s useful to remember how to walk, even though I’m grateful for trains, planes and automobiles.   

(For a highly readable account of current research on just how the brain stores or encodes memory, look at Terry McDermott’s 101 Theory Drive.)

2) It’s a way to keep yourself entertained when the power goes out. If you’ve committed a few things to memory, you’ll never be bored.

3) It’s a way to claim what matters to you:  A piece of your culture, your history, or something that inspires you. Not something that was beaten into you like the times table or an obligatory prayer, but the things you choose to take the time to commit to memory

So is human memory optional? Perhaps; perhaps not. You choose.

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