2-2 The Value of a Poor Memory

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Being a slow hiker type thinker can give you an advantage because you can be less likely to jump to conclusions and more able to flexibly change your mind when you're wrong. Chunks can be simple, like those related to numbers, the notes that form a musical chord, or words or phrases in a foreign language. Andrew Wiles, for example, is a mathematical legend who, after 358 years of efforts by some of the world's leading mathematicians, at last proved Fermat's last theorem, has pointed out that you often need forgetting, as well as remembering, to help you solve problem.

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We sometimes fool ourselves about our good attributes with relation to learning. We think they’re bad. We saw that with the race car brains verses the hiker brains. Being a slow hiker type thinker can give you an advantage because you can be less likely to jump to conclusions and more able to flexibly change your mind when you’re wrong. But there’s another advantageous attribute that we often think is bad, and that is a poor memory. The reality is that a poor memory has a valuable side to it. Let’s review the key idea. We know that the prefrontal cortex has roughly four slots of working memory. This means we can hold a maximum of about four neural chunks of information in those slots when we focus our attention. Chunks can be simple, like those related to numbers, the notes that form a musical chord, or words or phrases in a foreign language. If we’ve practiced enough, we can build more complex neural chunks that we can easily pull into working memory and work with. The neural chunks are kind of like ribbons of thought. These neural chunks can also relate to more complicated ideas, like longer portions of a song, or a more complex equation. As you can see, these neural sort of chunks, ribbons, can, with practice, involve incredibly complex activities. Experts have lots of well practiced neural chunks that they can easily bring to mind. The key idea here is that when you first look at something to try to figure it out, your working memory in your prefrontal cortex is working very hard. But once you’ve understood that something and practiced enough with it to form a solid neural pattern, you’ve created a neural chunk. That’s like that ribbon that you can easily draw into one slot of working memory, leaving the rest of your working memory free for other processing. And this is why, once we’ve practiced enough, beginning since we were toddlers, as adults, we can think a single thought, like walk towards the door, and walk, which is actually a very complex maneuver, without even continuing to think about it. Some people have working memories like steel traps, whatever ideas come before them can be easily retained in their working memories. This can make it easier for them to understand complex topics and solve complicated problems. But other people, like say, me, have not so good working memories. They may get something in mind, but then, shiny, they get distracted, and then some of what they were thinking about falls out their minds. But when that something falls out, something else comes in. And that’s where creativity comes to play. Those new ideas that come willy nilly into your mind can be the source of creative new thoughts. And in fact, as we know from research, those with poor working memories are often more creative. Do you have to work harder to keep up with the steel trap memory types? Sure, but you wouldn’t want to trade the asset that your poor memory gives you, that is your creativity. But digging deeper, a poor working memory means something else. As it turns out, a poor working memory gives you an effective tool to figure out simpler ways to do things. It may take you a while to figure those things out, but when you do figure them out, you can sometimes see elegant simplifications and brilliant shortcuts that a person with a strong working memory just doesn’t have the motivation to figure out. There’s more. Andrew Wiles, for example, is a mathematical legend who, after 358 years of efforts by some of the world’s leading mathematicians, at last proved Fermat’s last theorem, has pointed out that you often need forgetting, as well as remembering, to help you solve problem. Forgetting helps you get past previous mistakes you might have made. Andrew’s less than perfect memory, in other words, helped him to solve one of the world’s most difficult problems. Remember, if you do have a poor working memory, you’ll want to use memory tricks like the memory palace or learn to associate. For example, you can associate people’s names with memorable images. In English, it turns out that we have the name Wanda. You can remember Wanda’s name by imagining a magic wand. Or the name Phil, which sounds like the word fill in English, can be more easily remembered if you fill Phil’s head with fizzy water. Putting motion into your visualization helps make things stick better in memory. Mental tricks can be very powerful tools. We’ll cover some more mental tricks in the videos to come. But just a bit of insight now. Whether you have a good, or a not so good working memory, get yourself into the habit of making mind dumps of information that you do not need to keep online in your working memory. Every time you think of an errand, or something you need to remember, rather than holding it in working memory, commit to writing it down in a notebook or any other trusted inbox.

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