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  1. Long reads
31 May 1999

If I remember correctly, you are . . . er?

Is a good memory a sign of intelligence? Robert Chesshyrehopes not

By Robert Chesshyre

Harry Secombe: Good morning – my name is Neddy Seagoon.
Spike Milligan: What a good memory you have.

I am a devotee of University Challenge. It is not the outcome that engages me so much as the chance for self-assessment. Would I be an asset or a liability as a contestant? (Answer: an asset on the bad teams and a liability on the good.) Would I have the courage to buzz when I wasn’t 100 per cent certain? (Answer: unlikely.) Above all – and this is the true and horrible fascination – in what state of repair is my ageing memory? (Answer: below.)

As a journalist who writes on almost every non-scientific subject, down the years I have taken on board large amounts of information. I have sat at the feet of writers, politicians, clergymen, industrialists, sportsmen, diplomats, actors, gardeners and criminals. And before any of that, I had what passed for a good education.

If I retained now one tenth of what I had once known, I would stroll unrehearsed into the final of Mastermind. But I haven’t retained it.

The process started early. I was OK at exams and passed even subjects for which I had little natural capacity. But six weeks after O- and A-levels, or even my degree, I had forgotten virtually everything. If I had had to sit those exams again, I would have failed dismally, and for years retaking finals was a recurring nightmare.

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I persuaded myself that this leaky memory had little to do with pure intelligence. I have long compensated by taking copious notes, and I consoled myself with lore passed into the family by my grandfather, the headmaster of a grammar school. His view was that what is vital is not knowledge you carry in your head, but knowing where to look when you need it. I consequently surrounded myself with works of reference – everything from Who’s Who in Shakespeare to Lern Yerself Scouse (Ed: Fritz Spiegl). I have just bought a computer and am planning to buy CD-Roms that promise instant access to the whole of human knowledge.

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But even as I embrace technology I am aware that I am kidding myself. Just as calculators are no substitute for mental arithmetic, so a shelf packed with reference tomes will never beat a well-stocked mind.

Is memory vital to intelligence? What, indeed, is “intelligence”? I called a few psychologists and was reassured – if not utterly convinced – that one can at least survive without an elephant’s memory. For a start, the psychologists clearly had as much trouble remembering things as I did. Second, they suggested that isolating separate mental faculties was not helpful. If a car goes fast and well, we accept that its performance is the sum of its parts; the same, they said, is true of humans.

We remember what we are interested in. The financier recalls the vagaries of the market; the hypochondriac can identify a fatal symptom at the sign of the first spot; the sports nut can tell you that Arsenal beat Derby County 3-2 on the opening day of the season.

The worst thing about a poor memory is a sense of inferiority. We meet people who quote Shakespeare as if they had swallowed the complete works, and feel inadequate. But, said my interlocutors, what appears to be a good memory is often mere self-confidence. The schoolchild who shoots his hand up first (or the college kid who presses the buzzer) may not know more than the others but has the guts to take a chance.

Illiterate people often have good memories. If you can’t write a shopping list, you have to remember what you want to buy. And some poorly educated people perform extraordinary mental feats. In most betting shops there are punters who can scarcely write a horse’s name, but nonetheless calculate complicated bets with the speed of a computer.

However, oral memory is – according to Michael Howe, professor of psychology at Exeter University – disappointingly fallible. He told me of a tribe that was visited in the 1930s by researchers who recorded their stories. Thirty years later another team of anthropologists went back and recorded the same stories, only to find that much of the detail was very different – the tales had changed with the telling.

Dr Johnson, who, despite the odd lapse – “ignorance, madam, pure ignorance” – presumably had a good memory, advised everyone to make detailed notes: “He . . . who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from the certainty of knowledge.”

The kind of memory I have considered thus far enables us to make a living, even to shine. But however effortlessly we recall the plot of Wuthering Heights or a three-year-old dinner-party conversation, there is always a cloud on the horizon. What happens if and when we start to lose our everyday memories? What is politely known as absent-mindedness sets in early. We go upstairs and forget what we went for; we depend more on lists; we grope for names we thought we knew as well as our own. Catastrophic failure of the brain is no respecter of brilliance. The minds of Iris Murdoch and Harold Wilson were wiped as blank as that of our dotty Aunt Gladys.

These are the thoughts that drive me to watch University Challenge. The gates of memory are closing. I am watching not to measure what I know, but rather what I have forgotten. And, without memory, what are we? In this age of Alzheimer’s awareness, Descartes should be rewritten: “I remember, therefore I am.”