Has reading and writing taken away our ability to remember?

This post is a little different from most of the others, in the sense that instead of talking about stress or stress relief directly, I’m going to be talking about something random that I find intriguing (which is its own stress buster in a way).

I remember watching an educational program on TV a long time ago (it was either the Discovery channel or National Geographic, I can’t remember which) and in it they were doing a memory test on chimpanzees. The chimps were shown a set of numbers arranged in a particular way on a touchscreen and then they needed to touch the numbers in the order they were shown. And the chimps were able to get it right almost every time.


How did they do that? Well according to that same show (not the one shown in the video above), it may be because of the way we have evolved. As time has passed and humans evolved from our primitive ancestors, we developed the ability to communicate with each other. We developed language, the ability to read and write and speak to let our intent known. But in order to do this, we had to sacrifice our memory. That isn’t to say we can’t remember anything obviously, but the average human’s memory isn’t as strong or advanced as it could be. So does that mean that if we hadn’t developed language and through this, the ability to read, write and speak, then all of us would still have an excellent memory?

Let’s look at some blog posts that back up this claim.

First we have, “The “Paper Effect” – Note Something Down And You’re More Likely To Forget It” written by Christian Jarret and posted on wired.com.

In this article they talk about two things, one is a book called “Mind Change” written by Susan Greenfield, in which she describes the “Google Effect” where since everything can be stored in an external memory bank (the internet) people don’t feel the need to commit things to memory and so don’t remember things that well anymore.

Then it goes on to talk about how the same thing happens with noting things down on paper. It talks about a study that was conducted in which two groups of undergraduates needed to perform a memory test involving cards. The students needed to memorize the locations of pairs of cards arranged in a grid. After a certain amount of time all the cards were placed face down and the students needed to flip one card and then flip the matching partner and then go on like this until they had either flipped all the cards or got one pair wrong.

There were two twists though:

  1. One group of the students were allowed to take notes.
  2. Once the test started, the group that took the notes had their notes taken away from them.

The results: the group that took notes did much worse at the test than the group which didn’t. You’d think that taking notes would make you remember better, at least that’s what my teachers would keep telling me at school. But nope, the opposite was true.

In fact there are a few posts which support this claim, like this post titled, “Put Down That Notebook! New Studies Find Taking Notes Is Bad For Your Memory” posted on panopto.com.

And this post titled, “Taking Notes May Actually Make You Much More Forgetful”, written by Patrick Allan, posted on lifehacker.com.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the fact that writing things down makes you forget.

Take this post for example, titled, “Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write”, written by Dustin Wax, posted on lifehack.org (not to be confused with lifehacker.com, although the names are very similar). This post goes in-depth into why writing things down actually helps us remember things better.

So what does all this mean? Well it’s hard to say. Obviously we need to do a lot more scientific studies and research to find out the answer, after all you can’t just pick and choose between studies (or at least you shouldn’t). It does however bring up an interesting question, has reading and writing really taken away our ability to memorise?

I’m more inclined to say yes only because in my own personal experience I have found that sometimes when I note things like phone numbers down, I tend to forget them almost immediately. However, I could be completely wrong too. I guess we need to look into it more.

What about you guys? Do you feel like writing stuff down makes you remember or the other way around? It’s something to think about.


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