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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Long division

I can’t do long division. This is odd, since I distinctly remember agonizing over it during grade school. I was made to learn, told it might come in handy one day — calculating tip at a restaurant for instance.

I could refresh my memory by looking up how to do it on my phone. But then I might as well use the built–in calculator. That’s what I have to do every time I pay a check.

How and when did I forget what preteens can do with ease?

In due course, this fog of forgetfulness is now creeping into my college life. Despite the best efforts of my professor, the most enduring memory of freshman English is that Lord Byron had loads of sex. That wasn’t on the test.

How annoying that we spend all this money and time on our education, and we invariably forget so much of it.

One explanation for this unfortunate pattern is Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. The German psychologist repeatedly tested himself after memorizing groups of nonsensical syllables. In the first hour, he forgot over half of them. After a day, an additional 10 percent was gone. After a month, 14 percent more disappeared.

A neat curve forms, as our memories rot away. But it’s not that simple. The obstinate decay of time is not the only obstacle in the way of remembering.

Acquiring new memories also interferes with our ability recall the old. Conversely, old memories can interfere with our ability to recall the new. Like a really great house party, some have to be crowded out for the fun to continue.

Sleep hygiene, stress levels and significance of memories also play a role in retention. This confluence of factors is what makes memory so capricious.

Tragically, those of you who do not read this column closely will almost surely forget most of it before the end of the day. The same is true for those who have filled their heads with calculus for that final, fast approaching.

Moreover, we are constantly externalizing our memories, as the journalist Joshua Foer posits in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein.

Mr. Foer writes that before writing, the mind was the only repository of memories. People spent a great deal of time striving to achieve memories that were unerring and absolute. To be knowledgeable, this was required.

Then came books, photos, sound and video recordings, television, movies, Twitter and Facebook. Digital media allowed us to outsource our memories, as Foer puts it.

Surely, this advent of technology has helped spread information faster and farther. We could not be where we are today without our electronic identities. However, Foer rightly posits that this changes our function of memory.

Technology affects our curve of forgetting profoundly, and takes some memories off the curve entirely. I know I rely on my phone to remember most numbers and Facebook to remember most birthdays.

But then we’re screwed when we run out of batteries. And our computers cannot take a test for us. There is certainly value in remembering more without the terabytes of outsourcing available to us.

We need to remember more often that we forget too much. Revisiting and livening up the memories we need to retain — making them stupid, or funny, absurd or distinct in some other way — will place them more permanently in our heads.

Perhaps my liberal sprinkling of alliterative writing and attempts at humor make all this easier to recall. Perhaps shamelessly advertising my alliterative writing and attempts at humor make all this easier to recall.

After all, always, a lot of alliteration I wring from writing, right or wrong. Assonance, also, I do. Do you like that too?

If that does not work, Mr. Foer has a better idea. He notes that placing memories in the most outlandish contexts you can imagine is a sure way to recall them more easily.

So, please picture yourself reading these final sentences upon a bed of basmati rice, complemented by caramelized onions and garlic, seasoned with saffron and chicken stock. Towering above is a giant Gary Busey, who is about to eat you.

After his meal, he will whip out his phone to calculate a tip for the waiter. I dare you to forget this by the end of the day.

SEAN LENEHAN really wants you to remember this. You can email him at splenehan@ucdavis.edu.


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