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Does memory matter anymore?

May 18, 2010 19:18 IST
My son's friend Vikram, all of 18, was visiting us from the US. He is a bright student, has just finished school and is on a 'gap year', a fancy term these days when youngsters take a year to travel, to laze around, to lie on a beach or 'discover themselves' as they term it. This is what had brought him to Brazil.

"So, to what colleges are you applying?" I asked as we sat around.

College selection is a big ritual in the US, -- now in India too -- as students and parents agonise over their choices and come up with a list of universities, some great, others mediocre and some called a 'safety net' if all else fails. The list of 4 to 6 colleges thus arrived at is naturally all-important in the kid's mind and they discuss it with the peer group every day.

I expected Vikram to rattle off his list. But, in response he whipped out his phone, no ordinary instrument, but an iPhone. His parents can afford it. He tapped on it and read out his list. "Cornell, Indiana, Maryland... and so it went."

"What are your grades?" I asked.

Again the tapping on the iPhone and then the answer.

"OK. Now that you are in Brazil, what all do you want to see?"

Vikram began tapping again. "Copacabana beach, the statue of Christ on the hill, the Maracana stadium..." he started reading.

"Look, don't you remember all this? Do you need to refer to it each time?" I asked with some irritation.

"Why should I remember anything? This has a 8 gigabyte memory," he answered looking at me as if I was a dinosaur.

I was nonplussed for a moment.

My memory, which still works without an incitement or an instrument, made me remember my school days in Shimoga, my town in Karnataka.

An Asthavadhani is visiting from Andhra Pradesh, the home of people with the prodigious skill of doing eight cerebral things at the same time which is what the term Asthavadhana literally means. We as children have heard of these legends and their incredible feats but are now witnessing an actual performance.

The scholar starts in Sanskrit with a story from the Mahabharata. Say, he is talking about the pledge of Bhisma. Even as he is developing his theme, our Kannada teacher from the school, asks him a question from the Kannada Mahabharata relating to another theme, say, Draupadi's humiliation.

The scholar now turns to this theme and starts reciting from Kumara Vyasa's version of the epic, another text, only to be interrupted by a third teacher who asks him about some intricate rules in Telagu grammar. And so on, till the Asthavadhani is holding a discourse on eight different themes, with eight pandits and coming back each time to pick up the thread exactly from where he was interrupted.

It is like playing blind chess with a roomful of Grandmasters. What a feat of memory and scholarship; of retention and recall.

A human computer, no doubt, but one with an ability to give answers in verse. Do they still exist, I wonder, with their 12 GB memories.

But even as I recall all this, with Vikram looking at me disdainfully, I begin to reflect on whether my inherent faith in the importance of good memory is something obsolete and irrelevant for Vikram's generation. Whether what our mothers and grandmothers insisted upon is now an anachronism.

"Memorise these four formulae, remember those eight equations, tell me quickly the capitals of all the Scandinavian countries and the currencies of the Balkan states, recite the sloka from the fourth chapter and then the lines from Polonius's advice to his son." Thus were we taught. Learn, memorise, recall and regurgitate. Thus did I do well in school, college and even in the IFS-IAS examination.

My mind and emory was crammed with so much that was important but also so much that was trivia, at that stage. Facts and not knowledge, and at another level, knowledge and not wisdom seemed the immediate goal. Memory was the most important endowment and instrument in the process. And here was someone, questioning the very value of memory?

Startled by this self-awareness about the mutation of yesterday's verities, I began to wonder: Were there other things that we learnt and valued, which are now becoming irrelevant, in a Googalised world? Silicon Valley had taught me about the forces of creative disruption, or is it, disruptive creation, by which changes in technology irrevocably alter lifestyles. Were they altering human attributes too?

I recalled -- my memory again -- how important 'good handwriting' was in our teen years. Back in the mist of time, children were told to practice with only pencils or at worst with 'fountain pens,' ball point pens were not good for a steady handwriting; note books were called 'exercise books' and had four coloured lines to 'exercise your calligraphy.'

This was a mantra drilled into me, but without much success causing me endless agony over my bad 'writing'. Then there were the arithmetical tables: In the conservative schools in the South, we learnt tables up to 19 and could recite 19x6= 114, 19x7=133 in our sleep. Are these still admirable skills, even if not essential?

When was the last time, I wrote by hand and without a keyboard, and when did I multiply beyond five without a calculator, I wondered.

Perhaps these are qualities and attributes that will be irretrievably given up by the human race, and one day in the evolutionary scheme of things human hands will not be so crafted as to hold a pen, but will have bent fingers for faster tapping on the keyboard? I was getting carried away.

My mind wandered in another direction. Is exercising memory good for health and happiness or is it a burden, I thought. Are we better off not carrying so much junk in our mind -- telephone numbers, birthdays, accounts particulars etc etc; better off transferring all that to the gadgetry, or are we losing something by relying on the digital memory instead of our own neuron buzz in the brain?

Researching a little on this theme, I came across enough medical evidence to show that exercising your brain and memory is as necessary a thing as exercising your body. One of the dreadful prospects in Alzheimer's is the loss of memory and there are sufficient indications to say that it is important to keep the mind alert just as one should try to keep the body fit.

But too much memory is not too good a thing either, I read. From an Indian philosophical perspective -- and J Krishnamurthy is a good example of this view -- memory creates attachments and being too wedded to the memory of the past is to lose the ability to observe and experience the present . 'Do not clutter your mind with unnecessary details' was also a management principle.

The upshot of all this academic reading was the return to the good old 'golden mean:' Memory is a tool. To forget everything is foolish, but to remember too much is also a curse. Remember your passwords, then, but don't burden yourself with memorising all your bank accounts. Commit them to a register or an address book or the iPhone, when you can afford one.

"Does memory matter?" Having wondered about all this, I turned to Google to see what it offers. Go on. Try it yourself. The first answer you get is '2x4 gb or 4x2 gb: does Ram speed memory matter?' Need I say more?

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash