The Maddening Transience of Memory


This week found us comfortably ensconced in the airy confines of the Leprino Family Atrium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – homeschooling has its privileges! – as E learned systems of linear equations in two variables for the second time, and I learned them right along with her, for probably the seventeenth time in my life. And E’s upset about this fact. She knew this, just last spring. What happened? The same thing that’s happened to me, I tell her: I forgot. And that’s okay.

It’s not that they don’t make sense to me; they do. And it’s not as if I’m not fairly sure I know how to do them (E was, too); it’s just that I’m not a hundred percent sure, and that forms the basis of what I call ‘the maddening transience of memory.’ I learned systems of two variables first in eighth grade algebra, and then again in geometry, again as review for the SAT, and then for the ACT, then again in Algebra II, and since then, there’s been a double-fistful of times I’ve needed to solve a system of linear equations in two variables. The last time, prior to this one, was two years ago when I was working on modeling the educated and English-speaking population of the Philippines for a client. I’ve learned and re-learned how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables over and over in my life, and to be honest, I don’t consider myself an educational failure for it.

The reality is, we retain what we do, and we slowly discard what we don’t. And that, in turn, is why I’m more focused on making sure my kids know how to quickly re-learn something than permanently know it, because permanence – unfortunately – is kind of a relative thing. If the goal of learning is ability, as we’ve said before, then ability is surely the axle that turns the wheel of learning. Leave the axle alone too long, and rust accumulates.

That’s true of everything. Things I’ve known within the last twelve months that I don’t know right now: the guitar solo to Queensryche’s I Don’t Believe in Love; the muzzle velocity of a magnetic coilgun (writing-related, I assure you); contracting regulations for the Federal A-76 outsourcing program; trends in public-sector budgeting for state employment offices; how to bias a 12AX7 amplifier tube; the part number for our whole-house air filter media replacement; the telephone number of our drywall installer (don’t ask).  The list goes on and on. When I’m in the moment, I know the information, and once I’m done with it, it slowly gathers its hat and coat over the course of a week or so and makes its exit. By the way, every single one of those neurons was refilled with some other item of knowledge, and I’ve probably forgotten that, too. The older I get, the more I realize that some aspects of our brains are just like a quirky hard drive of limited capacity; there are things that will always be remembered (the way my wife looked in the sun of Fiddler’s Green on August 6, 1991) and things that will swiftly come back to me when I need them (how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables) and things that I may have already forgotten I ever knew.

So why, then, do we focus so keenly on testing and comprehension for kids? I buy into the argument that it’s important to know something once so that you can re-learn it quickly, and for that, I’m grateful I received 1980s-level rigor in my algebra testing. I did know this once, and did well on it, but testing is (obviously) no guarantee that something has taken up anything like permanent residency in my head. It’s not even a guarantee that the second, or third, or nth, exposure will cement it permanently. I’ve done about a hundred Z- and two-tailed t-tests in statistics in my life, and almost every time I do one, I have to go double-check to make sure which is which; about half the time, I’m wrong. I just don’t do them often enough that the information lives in a high-confidence neuron for me. It’s a never-ending ‘oh, right’ moment.

When Kathy was in medical school, she bought – and made extensive use of – an HP palmtop computer (back when THOSE were a thing) that she had the most marvelous term for. She called it her ‘peripheral brain,’ and in it she stored everything that was useful to a physician from a reference perspective. She was ultimately still responsible, during her intern and resident years, for coming up with a diagnosis and plan for every patient she saw, but dragging around a hundredweight of medical textbooks isn’t an option for an exhausted intern (or anyone, for that matter). Over time, I saw her use it less and less, and when I asked why, she told me that an increasing proportion of what was stored in her peripheral brain had moved to her ‘primary’ one. But it never left entirely, and to this date, she still uses a service called Up to Date, which keeps physicians informed on recent developments in medicine (because it’s a daunting challenge for any physician to remember what’s already been learned, but next to impossible to stay current with every new piece of research). In a sense, she, too, is forever learning and forgetting information in service of the need to do a good job now.

So, what I’ve come to is a position that I’d call the polar opposite of the current grind of elementary and primary school testing. I’m less concerned with my kids’ ability to permanently learn the date of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the formula for the volume of a quadrilateral pyramid, or the five major varieties of Pacific salmon. If one of them ends up being an industrial historian, or a civil engineer specializing in pyramids, or a Pacific marine biologist, those facts will end up taking up permanence in their ‘primary brains,’ and for the rest of us, if we need to know it, there’s Khan Academy or Wikipedia or a hundred other sources of ‘peripheral brain’ capacity.

I don’t care that they know something within an inch of their lives today, because there will come a day when they don’t know it anymore, and they need a sense of calm about that; a lost ability is just a few moments of review away from being recovered. What is important to me is that a concept makes sense to them today and can be grasped; anything grasped once can be grasped again, and that’s why I’m talking E off of a ledge, here in the sun-drenched air of the atrium, opening Khan Academy and starting a video on systems of linear equations. It’s as much for me as it is for her.

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