An acquaintance of mine in Oxford, who is a Catholic priest, is learning the psalter by heart. There are 150 psalms altogether. This has proven to be a challenging task (note that he also has an academic day job, next to duties as a priest, so he can't devote himself to the task full-time). Some psalms are catchy or short, others have interesting and striking metaphors, express recognizable emotions ranging from deep despair to hopeful optimism, and the very best (or most well-known) combine these elements, such as psalm 23 and psalm 42. But other psalms are harder to remember (think of psalm 119, for instance [this psalm has an acrostic structure that helps recall a bit, but still, it's very long...). In all, my acquaintance expects that the memorization process will take him years. When he has finally mastered all psalms "I will know as much as a 15-year-old boy in 1st century Israel". It seems that we are today a lot worse at accurate recall of verbal information (stories, songs, etc) than people in the past. An exquisite verbal memory was required to orally transmit long narrations like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Actors in Elizabethan times needed to learn about 70 different roles in one year time. If it is true that we are worse at verbal recall, why would this be so?
- Cognitive scaffolding and different cultural practices: people in the past used a variety of memory devices to remember verbal information. The method of loci, for instance, is cross-culturally widespread. Ed Hutchins (2005, J of Pragmatics 37) found descriptions of it in Aristotle, later Cicero, and its use in cultures in Papua New Guinea. This method consists of one's imagining an elaborate building or other structured space, where specific parts of the text to be memorized are attached to different parts of the building. Today, we simply don't live in a culture where such practices are being transmitted and learned.
- Perhaps there is a trade-off between the way we learn facts now, and the way they were learned in the past. We have easy access to information: it's at our fingertips for a large part of the day. We don't need to remember facts accurately (let along recall texts in their entirety), but merely need to know where to look for them. In the past, even literate people did not have this kind of access and were more dependent on recall of facts themselves. This shift was recently experimentally demonstrated as the so-called Google effect on memory. In a series of experiments, Betsy Sparrow and colleagues (2011, Science) presented participants with a large set of trivia they had to type on a computer. She told one half of the group that they could use the computer to retrieve facts later on, the other half were told the computer would erase all the typed information. Participants who thought that they could not rely on the typed notes showed a superior recall of the information. Those who (falsely) expected they could use the typed notes recalled the information poorly. In a variation on this experiment, Sparrow let students type information in several folders on a computer. Again, students who believed the information would be retrievable later on were less good at recalling the facts they learned. Strikingly, they were better at remembering where information was stored than the information itself. The widespread use of search engines and digital storage thus alters the way our natural memory: we shift from recall of facts to recall of where these facts are stored.
- This different way of recalling information may affect the very structure of our brains. Merlin Donald (1991) argued that our use of external media changes the synaptic connectivity, white matter density etc. Late-literal people, who learned to read and write as adults, have higher white matter density than early-literates, for instance. Perhaps our memory is also fundamentally affected in a way that makes it less fit for accurate verbal recall.
It is interesting to consider implications for education. My 8-year-old daughter is now already learning to use the internet to compile information and make powerpoint presentations and essays, for instance, on the life and work of Roald Dahl. She seems to be quite proficient at this already, and I like the English education system for teaching children such skills. By contrast, she and other members of her year have been struggling to learn the multiplication tables by heart from 1 to 12. They have been at it for over 6 months now, it's taking up a lot of the time in mathematics, and yet it's still shaky. Perhaps this is because these children live in a culture where we learn to memorize where information is to be found, rather than to recall the information itself.