Memorization and Learning

It’s funny how after so many years of being in school, there’s always something new to learn — especially about learning.  You would think that after more than 20 years of schooling somehow I would have learned every tip and trick, but nope, my ignorance seems to know no bounds.  Recently I rediscovered a technique that has greatly improved my learning: memorization.

Memorization and I have a very complicated history.  When I was but a wee lad, I was frequently forced to learn things using memorization such as: Chinese, piano and of course, the usual memorization-laden subjects in school: history, geography, biology, etc. Even though I was not particularly adept at memorizing things, I will say that I got through these formative years with relatively high grades by having a lot of assiduity (as Charlie Munger likes to say “sitting on your ass until you do it”) but these experiences left a sour taste in my mouth for memorization.  The subjects I much greatly preferred required less rote memorization and more thinking (just my kind of problems!).  Subjects like math, computers, English [1], physics and chemistry[2] were really my cup of tea.  You just have to understand a single concept or technique and all of a sudden you can answer hundreds of questions, talk about efficiency!  Of course, it still requires a lot of practice but it was a huge departure from trying to memorize a list of seemingly random facts.

As with many things in life, I feel like I’ve come full circle.  Recently, I’ve started taking Chinese classes again as well as music lessons (mostly guitar, a bit of vocal).  One thing that is crystal clear is that memorization is hugely beneficial… in certain contexts.  For example, my Chinese speaking has always been lacking.  I was a shy kid and didn’t really make much of an effort to speak in Chinese.  However by memorizing and reciting the textbook lessons, character by character, I’ve been told my Chinese has improved quite a bit.  There’s something about actually moving your mouth, activating your vocal chords, and having sound come out that gets your neurons connecting properly.  Another more obvious explanation: if I wanted to get better at speaking, I should practice speaking more!  However, I will point out that the opportunities to memorize a piece of text and say it out loud are much more abundant than speaking to an actual human.  In any case, a very useful application of memorization.

The other domain where I’ve found memorization very useful is in music.  When I was young, I thought music was about memorizing the correct order of notes to play.  In my case, it was keys on a piano.  I just had to figure out the right order and timing and I was done!  Unfortunately, piano was not conducive to my learning style at the time and I quit after only a few months.  However, while learning guitar as an adult, I realized that playing an instrument was so much more than just hitting the right notes.  There are so many more abstract, higher level concepts like the subtleties of rhythm or the attack on the guitar.  If you’re still thinking about which note to play, you’re definitely not thinking about these higher level concepts.  Similarly, when trying to do two things at once, like singing and playing, there are so many things going on that you can’t be thinking about all of them at once.  Enter memorization.  By memorizing the “easy” parts, like the notes and lyrics, you can start focusing on the important parts of playing.  In the case of a B.B. King solo, getting every little lick to sound just like the king, signature vibrato and all.  Or when singing and playing, knowing the lyrics down pat, and playing the notes without thinking so you can concentrate on actually getting them to work together.  Again, another important application of memorization.

My conclusion (which in hindsight is quite obvious) is that memorization has (at least) two important purposes.  First, use memorization to physically enable you to learn something.  That is, getting your muscle memory working and all the related neurons in your brain.  For example, speaking a language, or playing a musical instrument.  There’s really no other way around learning these things except by rote practice — that’s how our bodies work.  Second, use memorization to be able to ignore the “easy” parts so you can concentrate on higher level parts.  For example, memorizing the lyrics to a song so you can focus on the actual singing, or memorizing the multiplication table so you can focus on algebra.  In this application, memorization is a means to end to learn some higher level concept that is too difficult if you don’t have the basics down.

I’m quite excited by my new (obvious) discovery on the usefulness of memorization.  Although I probably should have come to this conclusion sooner, I’m quite happy to be a little bit less ignorant.  One of my goals in life is to be less ignorant, an ignorance removing machine if you will[3].  After all, you just have to be a bit better at ignorance removal and you won’t get eaten by a bear.

 



Notes:
  1. Essay writing requires coming up with a structured argument/flow.
  2. We really didn’t do a lot of organic chemistry in high school so most of the subjects was explaining concepts or doing a bit of math.
  3. That’s just a cute way of saying that I like to learn.

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