In recent decades, evidence has been growing that the much-neglected activity of simple memorization, or rote learning, has surprising mental benefits.
A couple of generations ago, memorization was an important part of education at all levels. Elementary school students memorized multiplication tables, the sound each letter represents, spelling words and famous sayings and poems. Memorization continued and expanded in high school, where students memorized the periodic table of elements, a list of presidents of United States, history dates and famous speeches.
But the past 50 years have seen a dramatic decline in the teaching of basic knowledge, information and facts in favor of teaching “higher-order skills” such as problem-solving and critical thinking. In this view, information can be looked up on the Internet, while understanding must be learned. Former New York City Education Chancellor Carmen Farina stated it this way: “Learning facts might help students pass exams but thinking enables them to get on in life.”
Recent research tells us that while memorizing isolated pieces of information is an inefficient use of time, memorizing relevant facts in a meaningful context greatly enhances understanding. Further, the hard work of memorization pays off by enhancing memory itself, as well as the ability to learn new information. This boost to the abilities of learning and remembering is especially important in two age groups.
One is the era of education and training from high school through college or job training. The ability to efficiently acquire knowledge and learn and remember skills during these years is crucial in determining success in life. And then, later in life, the preservation of the ability to learn and remember strongly affects the quality of life for people past retirement age.
Here are some of the benefits of practicing regular memorization. Memorization improves overall memory itself. Memorization increases the size and improves the function of memory-related brain structures. Memorization enhances the neurological flexibility of the brain referred to as neural plasticity. Memorization exercises more extensive sections of the brain than more passive activities such as reading. Memorization enhances creativity because having committed content to memory frees up brain circuitry for creative thinking. And finally, memorization demands the focus of attention and thus enhances the ability to concentrate in general.
Nobody advocates returning to the days when students were forced into the drudgery of meaningless memorization. But it is clear that incorporating memorization into any educational enterprise improves outcomes. And outside of formal education, strategic memorization can improve the quality of mental life and slow the natural cognitive decline that begins around age 45 and advances with aging.
A few years ago, I began memorizing some of my favorite poems. I have mastered quite a few, and have thrown in a few speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, a little Shakespeare and about half a dozen psalms. The activity can be frustrating at the very beginning, but ultimately I truly enjoy the process and it feels like it’s doing me some good.
There are many online activities that can provide good mental exercise. My favorites are the "World Maps" online geography games by Sheppard Software. There are games for learning the names and locations of the countries on each continent, as well as the states and provinces of the countries here in North America. I find it has enriched my experience of world events to know, for example, exactly where Somalia is located in relation to Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But everyone is different, and memorization is best performed in the context of things we already find interesting. In such a context, memorization enhances enjoyment and understanding.
If you enjoy football, try committing to memory some unfamiliar offensive and defensive formations. And if you have a favorite team, memorize the jersey numbers of the regular players. It will free up your attention, as you will already know who caught the pass or made the tackle before the announcer says it. You might even be able to turn the volume down, which could be a bonus.
If you’re fond of dogs, learn to identify some additional breeds beyond the ones you already know. Music appreciation is enhanced by memorizing lyrics. And walks in the park can be enriched by learning to identify trees, birds or bird songs. The beauty of the night sky is rendered more meaningful by knowing some stars and constellations.
Any of these or other memorization projects you can think of may well improve your experience of your interests, as well as preserve and build your brainpower.
Dr. Victor Garlock holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is the author of "Your Genius Within: Sleep, Dream Interpretation & Hypnosis." He was a professor of psychology at Cayuga Community College for over 30 years. He currently is offering individual hypnosis sessions as well as personal counseling at The Center, a holistic health center and spa located in Auburn. For more information, call (315) 704-0319 or visit thecenter4wellness.com.
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