Learning Myth #10: Memory is like a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it gets.

We all know that our muscles improve with use. If we start lifting weights we gradually get stronger and, over time, can lift heavier weights. If we begin running regularly we will improve our speeds. But what about memory? Does the analogy with our muscles work?  Will our memories improve if we “exercise” them?

When my daughter was in fifth grade her teacher gave the class an assignment to memorize the Declaration of Independence. Now, no one doubts that the Declaration is one of the foundational documents of our country and its importance is beyond dispute. Understanding its role in our country’s early history and the principles it espouses are important to knowing who we are as a country. But memorize it? Why?

I’m not a historian, but I am an educational psychologist, and I know that even had my daughter memorized the Declaration she would have forgotten it within a week. So what good could memorizing it have done? In fact, I was so dead set against her wasting her time, that, for perhaps the only time in her schooling, I told her to ignore the assignment.

She failed her test. She was upset, I was responsible, so, I made an appointment to see her teacher. I patiently explained why I thought the assignment was a waste of time and, predictably, her teacher became VERY defensive. The teacher told me (and I’m paraphrasing): “Memory is like a muscle. If you use it, it gets stronger and better.” Now this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this, and I think most of us have heard this argument and its variants at various points in our schooling. For example: Learning to play chess improves your logical reasoning ability and makes you better at science or learning Latin isn’t useful in and of itself but it helps improve general intelligence. But are these assertions true?

In this research paper:

Far Transfer Study

The authors looked at these questions through a meta-analysis.

To understand their conclusions it’s important to understand the difference between near transfer and far transfer. Near transfer occurs when a skill is transferred to a closely related domain. For example, as the authors point out, if you learn to drive on a Honda then you can also drive lots of other cars or if you can use an Android phone then learning to use an iPhone isn’t difficult. No one doubts that near transfer exists. But what about far transfer? Does memorizing the Declaration of Independence help you memorize multiplication tables?

Here are their results (focus on the red bars):

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 5.14.46 PM

The bars show the effect size for two sets of experiments. The Music Training experiments measured the effect of music training on children’s general cognitive skills. The Working Memory (WM) experiments measured the effect of memory training on general cognitive skills.

They found a significant effect size in many studies (blue bars), but when they eliminated the studies with a weak study design (no active control group) the effects of training were insignificant. Thus, they concluded that neither type of training resulted in far transfer.

And, truthfully, this result has been known for a long time. Back in 1901 Edward Thorndike ran experiments that showed that improving memory or reasoning in one domain does not benefit other domains. In spite of the prevalent acceptance in popular culture that memory gets stronger with use, many experiments over the past 100 years have confirmed that this particular belief is not true.

So, if your goal is to memorize lots of poetry, go for it. Over time you will get better at memorizing poetry — but it won’t help you remember Spanish vocabulary.

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