I was listening to a podcast the other day. Two psychologists (Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Galonka) were being interviewed about embodied cognition, a topic I find particularly interesting. As an example of what they meant by embodied cognition (something rather more specific than the fun and quirky little studies that are so popular nowadays — e.g., making smaller estimations of quantities when leaning to the left; squeezing a soft ball making it more likely that people will see gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influences them to see the faces as male; holding a heavier clipboard making people more likely to judge currencies as more valuable and their opinions and leaders as more important), they mentioned the outfielder problem. Without getting into the details (if you’re interested, the psychologists have written a good article on it on their blog), here’s what I took away from the discussion:
We used to think that, in order to catch a ball, our brain was doing all these complex math- and physics-related calculations — try programming a robot to do this, and you’ll see just how complex the calculations need to be! And of course this is that much more complicated when the ball isn’t aimed at you and is traveling some distance (the outfielder problem).
Now we realize it’s not that complicated — our outfielder is moving, and this is the crucial point. Apparently (according to my understanding), if he moves at the right speed to make his perception of the ball’s speed uniform (the ball decelerates as it goes up, and accelerates as it comes down, so the catcher does the inverse: running faster as the ball rises and slower as it falls), then — if he times it just right — the ball will appear to be traveling a straight line, and the mental calculation of where it will be is simple.
(This, by the way, is what these psychologists regard as ‘true’ embodied cognition — cognition that is the product of a system that includes the body and the environment as well as the brain.)
This idea suggests two important concepts that are relevant to those wishing to improve their memory:
We (like all animals) have been shaped by evolution to follow the doctrine of least effort. Mental processing doesn’t come cheap! If we can offload some of the work to other parts of the system, then it’s sensible to do so.
In other words, there’s no great moral virtue in insisting on doing everything mentally. Back in the day (2,500 odd years ago), it was said that writing things down would cause people to lose their ability to remember (in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates has the Egyptian god-pharaoh say to Thoth, the god who invented writing, “this discovery of yours 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.”)
This idea has lingered. Many people believe that writing reminders to oneself, or using technology to remember for us, ‘rots our brains’ and makes us incapable of remembering for ourselves.
But here’s the thing: the world is full of information. And it is of varying quality and importance. You might feel that someone should be remembering certain information ‘for themselves’, but this is a value judgment, not (as you might believe) a helpful warning that their brain is in danger of atrophying itself into terminal dysfunction. The fact is, we all choose what to remember and what to forget — we just might not have made a deliberate and conscious choice. Improving your memory begins with this: actually thinking about what you want to remember, and practicing the strategies that will help you do just that.
However, there’s an exception to the doctrine of least effort, and it’s evident among all the animals with sufficient cognitive power — fun. All of us who have enough brain power to spare, engage in play. Play, we are told, has a serious purpose. Young animals play to learn about the world and their own capabilities. It’s a form, you might say, of trial-&-error — but a form with enjoyability built into the system. This enjoyability is vital, because it motivates the organism to persist. And persistence is how we discover what works, and how we get the practice to do it well.
What distinguishes a good outfielder from someone who’s never tried to catch a ball before? Practice. To judge the timing, to get the movement just right — movement which will vary with every ball — you need a lot of practice. You can’t just read about what to do. And that’s true of every physical skill. Less obviously, it’s true of cognitive skills also.
It also ties back to what I was saying about trying to achieve flow. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s probably either too easy or too hard for you. If it’s too easy, try and introduce some challenge into it. If it’s too hard, break it down into simpler components and practice them until you have achieved a higher level of competence on them.
Enjoyability is vital for learning well. So don’t knock fun. Don’t think play is morally inferior. Instead, try and incorporate a playful element into your work and study (there’s a balance, obviously!). If you have hobbies you enjoy, think about elements you can carry across to other activities (if you don’t have a hobby you enjoy, perhaps you should start by finding one!).
So the message for today is: the holy grail in memory and learning is NOT to remember everything; the superior approach to work / study / life is NOT total mastery and serious dedication. An effective memory is one that remembers what you want/need it to remember. Learning occurs through failure. Enjoyability greases the path to the best learning and the most effective activity.
Let focused fun be your mantra.