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Three-Score and Two Years

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting my grand-daughter’s fifth grade class.  Knowing that I work in the STEM field and was once a college professor, the teacher had the students recite the entire periodic table – all 118 elements - in unison.   They also understood that these were the basic building blocks of our world, and that molecules and sub-atomic particles had a key role.  I was impressed.  Never in my lifetime have I memorized the periodic table.

Not that I didn’t have to memorize things as a grade-schooler.  I still recall bits and pieces of Shakespeare (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?…”).  I can also recite nearly all 272 words of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…”) with reasonable accuracy, although I have no idea why that is still loitering in my brain.  The whole thing took Abe about 2 minutes to deliver, while the other speaker at Gettysburg that morning, the famed orator Edward Everett, spoke for two hours.  I was not the only 5th grader grateful that Abe’s words were the ones that loitered in history.

In today’s techno-culture, there are many who question the utility of memorizing literature or history – after all, Siri can recite Lincoln’s famous speech or any of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets on request.  Can’t we find other more useful things to spend time on in school?  Perhaps something a bit more practical, like coding, or even network security.  On the other hand, much is written about how technology is robbing us of the ability to generate original thoughts (see, e.g., Brain Drain).  As a child of the technology supernova myself, I can’t help but wonder whether all that memorized stuff in my brain is just wasted storage, with no delete key and oodles of external backup.

 Other than learning the words of a popular song so I can sing along in the car, there is really no reason for me to memorize things anymore.  One possible exception is my annual physical exam, where it has become standard practice for the doctor to read a list of 3 unrelated items (e.g. clock, puppy, fork) and then ask me to repeat them at the end of the exam.  I’ve heard that some doctors even use a list of 10 items.  If they try that on me, they’re going to have to settle for the Gettysburg Address.

 The more I think about those fifth graders, the more I realize that my own focus and memory aren’t what they used to be.  My innate curiosity about the world and its workings used to drive me to the Encyclopedia or the library.  When my peers were fine with just not knowing, I still had to find an answer, even if it involved considerable effort.  Information that you have to work for has more inherent value – it’s worth remembering. 

My curiosity hasn’t waned over the years, but now Siri serves up the information that Google provides.  I can investigate lots more stuff in much less time, and with very little effort.  I barely have time to ponder a  question before the answer appears.  Occasionally I find myself asking the same question the very next day. There is no incentive to remember anything, so I don’t.  Columbia Psychologist Betsy Sparrow has studied this process, noting that many of us struggle when faced with a difficult question. At the risk of appearing uneducated, we’ve gotten really good at pulling  up the answer on our devices.  She and her team have termed this “The Google Effect”.

Chocolate chip cookies, sex and shopping – they all have one thing in common.  All of these and many others trigger a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine – the “feel good” hormone.  Most of us recognize the pitfalls of overindulging in dopamine generators, and those of us who don’t are prime research subjects for Anna Lembke, MD.   Dr. Lembke is the Program Director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Fellowship as well as the author of "Drug Dealer, MD – How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop"- a top rated book on the opioid crisis.  A renowned expert on addiction, she says that instant access to questions on the Internet gives our brain a little squirt of dopamine, and that – like many “feel good” things – we are becoming addicted to it.  Dopamine focuses us on the emotional centers of our brains, while drawing us away from the problem-solving areas. 

What’s so bad about getting the answers we crave quickly, and feeling good about it in the process?  Aside from the lost-opportunity cost of being addicted to our devices, it might be a trade-off that some would reasonably consider.  People who spend a lot of time reading and studying were known in my day as “bookworms” and it wasn’t an insult.  A group of researchers from Canada sees it differently.

The Canadian study found that young adults (who spend an average of 6 hours a day online)  suffer increased risk of cognitive disorders much like those seen in older adults in the early stages of dementia.  The gray matter of the brain is altered such that memories are harder to acquire, another risk factor for dementia.  The study concludes with a warning that in the following decades, we could see a 4-6-fold increase in Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia as a result.

Perhaps remembering the Gettysburg Address (albeit the shorter one), is not such a bad thing after all.  At least 272 words of storage in my gray matter has been protected for the last three-score and 2 years. 

And then there’s this...Clock-Puppy-Fork...which somehow feels good.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.  In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics.  Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders.  His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.





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