Persistence of Memory?

This week Frank J. Oteri posed some questions about memory and specifically took aim at the growing number of modern conveniences that might diminish some of our memory skills even as they free the mind in others. My own feeling is that the paradox that Frank poses—that technological advances may be balanced out by a corresponding decrease in mental capacity—might have something to it, but in many ways we may actually come out on top.

To take the case of remembering phone numbers, if our needs as a species no longer revolve around the importance of remembering brute data like phone numbers, then we may have done very well to dispense with our old habits. Whenever I visit my father he is usually working on a crossword puzzle, which is a form of satisfaction that feels completely foreign to me—perhaps because the impressive feats of memory required to excel at crosswords can’t help but impress themselves as unnecessary on the mind of a twenty-something. It’s exactly the kind of skills that are important in spelling bees and crossword puzzles that are most easily dispensed with—for better or for worse—when the internet is in your pocket.

This week I attempted to play through some of my older pieces from memory and was surprised by how little time it took for me commit my first official mistake; in most cases, I could stumble through 95% of the piece, yet I could not make it more than a page in without some minor inaccuracy or variation creeping in.

As a performer, I remember being assigned to notate a piece I had been practicing from memory. This, too, was exceptionally humbling; in particular, the exercise taught me that I apparently held details like dynamics, articulations, and expressive terms as relatively unimportant.

Without painting an overly rosy picture of our relationship with technology, one thing I can say is that my inability to perfectly recall data has led to at least one beneficial outcome: being unable to remember it all, I’m forced to ask myself what is truly integral in what I seek to remember. That’s not a matter of simple data recall, but a value judgment; if I am to have any success in remembering the kinds of details that can’t be Googled, then I need to play an active role in my own remembering. In a society that’s being flooded with more and more data, then perhaps this ability to be a selective rememberer—the ability to edit information, indeed the precise skill of forgetting—will only become more necessary and prevalent?

2 thoughts on “Persistence of Memory?

  1. davidwolfson

    As someone who has been doing crosswords on and off all his life, but who can’t remember a piece of music worth a damn no matter who wrote it (in my defense, I’m an excellent sight reader), I would just like to note that whereas crossword puzzles did indeed use to reward the retention of obscure words and facts, they have been reimagined in the age of the pocket Internet, and now most often feature puns and other wordplay, clues made ambiguous by use of homonyms, and offbeat associations.

    David Wolfson

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  2. danvisconti

    David–thank you for filling me in on a trend that I obviously was not aware of! That’s very interesting how the puzzles themselves seem to have “adapted” to our current lifestyle. I’m working on a couple right now and the puns, etc. do add a nice element of creative/lateral thinking to the mix.

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