What Do We Use Our Memories For?


Saturday, 8.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. – Elie Wiesel

In my last post I looked at the components of note taking and the importance of working memory, note production and comprehension. In this post we’ll look at memory and how our need for it has changed over time.

The model above from Cowan, 1998 is a simple theoretical model of the way memory works that’s useful when you think about what you ask your memory to do.

First, you’re taking in information that’s coming at you from all directions. You can’t pay attention to everything. For example if you’re in a lecture hall and there is music playing in the corridor and two students having a whispered conversation behind you – you can’t listen to the lecturer, the music and eavesdrop all at the same time. You’re going to have to focus, tune out the music and conversation and listen to what the teacher has to say. However, this focused attention is capacity limited – which means you can only take in so much that you can remember as you go along. Once the teacher makes more than a few points you’re going to start losing track of what’s being talked about unless you are already familiar with the material.

Next, you have material that you can keep in active memory, but that is lost over time. For example, someone might have explained a process to you that you are able to follow. Let’s say it’s accessing a computer database and using different types of commands to do specialist searches. At the time you pick up that using special characters helps you do do certain things and that stays in your memory. If you were to come back and do the same task after a few weeks or months where you hadn’t practiced the approach you might find that you can’t quite remember – that you need a refresher.

And then you have long-term memory, the stuff that you’ve learned and rehearsed until it’s stuck in your head – the names of your family and friends, the songs you know word for word and everything else that you can access without having to look it up.

Before the widespread availability of writing technology if you had to remember something – you really had to memorise it. Stories of your ancestors, the myths and legends that made up your culture, the knowledge that your people believed in – they were lost unless they were remembered. In India, for example, sacred verses were memorised and passed down through generations. Very little was written down and so memorisation was the key to preserving any form of history. This was the same around the world and you can see this importance of memorisation in the Western history of the commonplace notebook – a place to keep extracts that you considered important. These were less about reference and more about an aid to memorisation – you could read and recall the material that was too important to forget, selected and curated from the mass of material that it was impossible to remember.

Yeo (2014) describes how the commonplace book as a tool was replaced by early modern scientists as their interest shifted from memorisation to data collection and recording. Notebooks became a place to collect data and record observations. You had writing technology that, for the first time, allowed you to forget and, in doing that, gave you the mental space to think.

Thinking happens in those other spaces – an area of interest where you focus on certain things. In many day to day situations we need to make sense of what is going on, taking in information, analysing what we’re collected and making choices about what to do next based on what we think. Our ability to take notes either helps or hinders in this activity

In the next post let’s look at the research on the production of notes and see if that helps.


Karthik Suresh


Cowan, N. 1998, “Visual and auditory working memory capacity”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 77-77.

Richard Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. xvii + 398. ISBN 978-0-226-10656-4.

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