Remembering How to Remember

I used to have what to some was an impressive memory, especially for numbers. I could remember phone numbers, addresses, and account numbers when others would be at a loss. I could also find my way to nearly any place once I’d been there before, and discovered that I am a landmark navigator (my wife is a map navigator, so together we’ve been really unbeatable).

But with the invention and integration of smartphones and GPS mapping, memory has become less important as these functions have been shifted off to what a wise colleague once labeled as “the peripheral brain” we carry with us everywhere now.

Recently, I’ve been trying to peel back this layer of peripheral brain to see if I still possessed even the ability to find my way in the world without it. Did my memory still work? And what would it feel like to engage it again?

With a lot of travel recently to new places both around home and farther afield, I’ve had plenty of chances to experiment. But letting go the first time was difficult. Luckily, I had a safe way to start. There was a new regular center of activity I was visiting every week or so in the spring, and I’d been using GPS to navigate there. One day, I decided to try it without the assistance of GPS. Almost immediately, the mental kick of actually having to think while driving sparked in a familiar and not unpleasant way, a charge I knew well but had not experienced often lately.

Immediately, I was more aware of my surroundings, recognizing landmarks and filing away new ones for later. The increase in mental activity was noticeable. I wasn’t just waiting for a disembodied voice to tell me where to turn — I actually had to think 2-3 steps ahead, and look at the world more closely to make sure I was remembering things correctly, and process forward from there.

Traveling with my wife on a recent trip to a new country, I asked for us to not use Google Maps on more than one occasion, and to see if we could find our way using street signs, common sense, and occasionally a peek at the map the hotel provided — you know, living like O.G. tourists. It worked well, and we didn’t have that nagging feeling that we were programmed ourselves or being monitored by a phone about to vibrate to signal a turn. We felt more spontaneous and more relaxed, and we found our way just fine. Not having something predetermined put us back in control and made it feel like we had not surrendered to something else. If we wanted to veer left, there wasn’t a technological anchor that was going to nag us or require our attention. In fact, we learned that our intuition and attention often worked better than Google Maps when we remembered that we could trust these again.

We’ve also tried to stop looking everything up when a question arises — Who was in that movie? What was the name of that band? Who won the championship that year? Instead, we’ve decided to talk it out, to see if we can get to the answer ourselves, and if we can’t whether the conversation still hinges on the factoid that started it, or if we move on from a point of trivia. Not surprisingly, the detail that starts such conversations is often subsumed or pushed aside by the momentum of actual discussion, or the conversation yields the answer as we circle in on it with context from our memories and knowledge. It’s more fun than consulting Wikipedia, that’s for sure.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever return to remembering numbers in any prodigious manner, however. The need to remember phone numbers has been almost totally supplanted by the increasing irrelevance of telephone calls and the user interface that speed dials with a single touch of a familiar face or name.

But remembering how to remember? That’s an interesting feeling. Turn off your peripheral brain sometime, and try it.