The story goes that a reporter asked Albert Einstein for his phone number (no, this didn’t take place in a bar), and Einstein had to look it up in a phone directory. When the reporter expressed surprise that the twentieth-century’s greatest physicist didn’t know his own phone number, Einstein replied, “Never memorize what you can look up in a book.”
If there was any validity to Einstein’s comment when he said it many decades ago, then it’s even more valid now: Google lets me look up information much more quickly and easily than even the most nimble-fingered research librarian can find it in a book.
But should we really follow Einstein’s advice about memorization? After all, the man couldn’t even comb his own hair, and he seems to have had trouble knowing what to do with his tongue.
On the one hand, the option of not memorizing a bunch of stuff is enticing. My brain, like a computer’s hard drive, does not have unlimited space, so why should I devote X number of brain cells to remembering my colleagues’ birthdays, when Facebook will remind me? Better, I think, to forgo that kind of rote memorization, and instead direct my brain power to more complex feats such as procedural memory (e.g. how do I make an omelette?) or biographical memory (e.g. what did I do in the 1990s?).
But on the other hand, human memory is like a network, and a network is most robust when it contains lots of connections. Moreover, the more “nodes” that exist within a network — that is, the more stuff that I have encoded in my memory — then the more likely it is that I can develop new connections between previously unlinked facts and notions. And those new connections are what drive creativity and innovation.
The difference between knowing something and not knowing something (but being able to look it up) is profound. When I know something, it persists in my mind, even when I’m not thinking about it. It’s a bit like driving: as I’m doing so, my eyes are focused on a surprisingly small field of content — maybe just the car in front of me and a patch of highway. But I’m still aware, at some level, of the other cars, of the weather, of the radio, of the trees in the ditch, and so on. And for better or worse, all those “marginal” things affect my experience of driving, either enhancing it (by making me aware of looming dangers) or detracting from it (by potentially distracting me from the driving task at hand). In contrast, when I don’t know something (but can look it up), I really don’t know it. It’s absent rather than marginal. It can no more enrich my thinking and creativity than a fish swimming in Lake Huron can impinge on my driving.
I can always look up the Latin word for “hand.” But if I already know that it’s “manus” — and have that fact at my beck and call in the dark recesses of my mind — then as I rove through my life I can intuit a network of connections among things that would otherwise be obscure: a manufactured item is one made by hand; a manuscript is written by hand; manure is excrement that was originally worked into a field by hand; a manacle is intended to restrain the hands; manners were originally protocols for the hands; and so on.
By the way, Einstein’s phone number in Berlin was 2807. Remember that.