The Better Your Memory, The More You Can Create

The Six of Cups is about drawing on the past.

I am pretty bad at names. At my absolute worst, I will literally forget to the listen when someone introduces themself.

Recognizing this weakness, I pay extra attention to it and try to overcome it through a series of strategies. The first step is obviously to listen. Then, I’ll find a way to repeat the name back, like “Nice to meet you, Sean.” In my improv classes, where I meet 12 or more new students every eight weeks, I start the first class of each session with a warm up game all about saying each others’ names. I also try to refer to my students by name, rather than collectively (e.g. “Andy and Dana, great scene!” instead of “Great scene you two!”).

But eventually, I forget those names too. If I run into a student a year later, odds are their name will have faded from memory.

This process, of remembering and forgetting, is known as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. It says that recall is highest at the moment of discovery and slowly fades away entirely. But subsequent prompting can “refresh” the memory and ultimately prolong its life.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
via Michael Nielsen

In meditating on my poor memory, I am always reminded of Socrates’ belief that writing would be bad for human civilization. In The Phaedrus he says:

“…for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Whenever I read that passage, I chuckle. In what world would we trade writing for a better memory? It’s thanks to writing that I can share this newsletter with you each week, and it’s thanks to writing that Socrates can communicate with us today.

But what if he’s on to something? What if writing isn’t as great as we thought. What if writing is actually making us too reliant on external storage?

Two different articles I read this week made the convincing case that a better memory can superpower your creativity. As Michael Nielsen puts it:

“[F]or creative work and for problem-solving there is something special about having an internalized understanding. It enables speed in associative thought, an ability to rapidly try out many combinations of ideas, and to intuit patterns, in ways not possible if you need to keep laboriously looking up information.”

If creativity is, as Steve Jobs said, just connecting things, it follows that the more you have on hand to connect, the more creative you’ll be.

I’ve argued that the more you read (or discover), the more you have to draw from, and the more creative you can be. It’s another version of Austin Kleon’s  “problems of output are problems of input.” But maybe it’s not really about the inputs, but rather, your ability to remember those inputs in the first place. After all, I’ve been building my commonplace book (on and off) for three years now. But I hardly know what’s in it. Without periodic reviews, all those quotes and ideas aren’t doing me any good. How can I access something if I don’t remember it exists?

commonplace book

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