I was once listening to a TED video where the speaker mentioned that the average person’s brain takes in as much data in a day as our ancestors used to over a lifetime. It got me thinking about all of the things that I’ve learned, and also all the stuff I’ve forgotten. My best guess would be that at least 50% of the information that comes my way is stored temporarily before being forgotten forever. And I wondered why that happens. Two possibilities occurred to me
- Is it that I’m becoming more forgetful as I grow older? OR…
- Is my brain becoming “full” with all of the stuff I already know?
A little bit of research on memory indicated that the ‘spells of forgetfulness’ that I was experiencing are actually quite common for people my age (I’m 36). As for my brain becoming “full”, it turns out that the brain is an incredibly plastic organ, able to to manage huge quantities of data-input, while simultaneously developing the ability to retain this information over time. In fact, there are numerous cases of individuals with exceptional memory and not all of them were born with this this ability. Past winners of memory championships have included seemingly ordinary folk who were able to train their brains to retain vast quantities of information. This got me interested enough to go out and buy a book titled Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It and which I’m currently reading (more on this in later posts). But as I’m learning new things about how my memory works, I’ve also realized that my curiosity around a subject can have a significant impact on my ability to retain information. As someone who is easily distracted, I often start out reading a book, an article, or watching a documentary, only to give it up halfway when something new grabs my attention. And I don’t always remember to go back and finish what I started. Apps like Pocket, Youtube’s Watch Later feature, and even the sync feature on my podcast app have helped reduce this to some degree. But I realized that once my initial curiosity cravings were satiated, my willingness to go back and seek in-depth knowledge would diminish. So I asked myself; How can I train myself to be more curious? A Google search on improving curiosity yielded a few tips, but nothing that I found particularly interesting nor would it drive the sort of behavioral change I was seeking.
But then I stumbled upon this wonderful short film on National Geographic’s Youtube channel that follows the adventures of a Jedediah Jenkins—a young man who quit a job he loved, and rode a bicycle from Oregon to the southern tip of South America.“When you’re a kid, everything is astonishing. Everything is new, and so your brain is awake and turned on… Once your brain establishes a routine, it stops … the alertness goes away,” he says. By choosing adventure, Jenkins is able to reactivate his brain and turn his “hundred years on this planet into a thousand”. He is now writing a book that documents his journey and the stories within.
Having recently spent a week at a wildlife reserve (my first ever visit), I was struck by what Jedediah said. Over a four-day trip, I had spent roughly nine hours each day in a jungle, immersed in the sights and sounds of flora and fauna that I had little to no knowledge about. Since the reserve was off-grid for cell-phone and Internet coverage, I was free from distraction and developed a budding curiosity about subjects that I had never given much thought to exploring earlier.
- Are male tigers solitary creatures or do they help rear their offspring?
- Are birds colour blind? (they’re not)
- How big can a Sambar deer get?
- How do binoculars work?
- What does the national power grid of India look like, and where does Mumbai get it’s electricity from?
As you can see not all of my questions were about wildlife. The conversations I’ve had during this trip spanned subjects that I knew but have since forgotten (physics – How prisms can reflect light to create an image) to the new subjects that I don’t normally encounter in my day-to-day (the economics of power generation and distribution in India). By pulling myself out of the routine and experiencing something completely new and different, I had just experienced first-hand what Jed was talking about. And it got me thinking. We regiment our lives around the things we ‘need’ to do: our jobs, attending conferences, running errands. But we dedicate so little of our time to make space for the things we love: family, music, books, sports, art i.e. LIFE. And by reducing our experiences to routine activities, our brains become optimized towards certain tasks. We become highly specialized at making lists, day-plans, doing follow-ups—but we can’t remember the name of that terrific foreign film we saw last year, or the name of that dish we tried at the new restaurant.
As a child I was interested in writing, but it was not skill that I nurtured past high-school. And like any skill that’s been unpracticed for very long, I’ve gotten rusty. The very act of writing this post has taken me fives times longer than it would have when I was 15. But it is in the very act of writing, of putting my thoughts down that I am forced to relive my experiences and solidify them in my memory instead of letting them dissipate, to be eventually forgotten in the humdrum of everyday life. I was listening to a podcast by the writer Aakar Patel, and someone asked him how much writing a writer should get done in a day. His response—500 words. Depending on how often you write, that might seem like a little or a lot (this post is already more than 900 words). But he believed that a good writer needs to experience life before he puts pen to paper. Since I’m not a professional writer, I might not be able to actually pen 500 words a day (100 words seems a more suitable target), but I’m hoping the practice of putting down something, will force me to develop new behaviours. To question more often, and listen more closely. To explore, to be curious. To practice, to remember. And yes—to LIVE.