Memory, Cell Phones and Chess

The other day my IPhone stopped functioning, causing a wait of several days for a new one. I became aware of a troubling phenomenon; I could not remember the phone numbers of several people whom I talk to regularly, since for the last two years I have simply pressed the screen for “Fred” and “John (work)” and so forth. I simply could not remember the numbers.

This is disturbing, not for the inconvenience but for the fact that I have always had a very good memory, and I wonder if the digitization of modern life is starting to erode it. It’s a certainty that computers can have both good an bad effects on the brains of the people who use them. Video games can improve reaction times and visual acuity–while wasting time that could be used for serious study. Closer to today’s particular subject, search engines put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips–while reducing the incentive to learn and retain that knowledge in our own minds.

In his fascinating book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer warns that if our individual memories atrophy due to technology we risk losing something important. Our ability to think properly and clearly is involved with working memory; Googling is not allowed during job interviews! I have been interested in the subject of improving memory since I was a child, have read several books on the subject and have used their techniques to good effect at school and work. Yet, when it came to phone numbers I had allowed my memory to atrophy due to the convenience of the technological crutch built into the phone.

Hard thinking, concentration and memorization are more than just virtues. They literally change the brain, building new connections and networks of neurons in ways that passively watching video or copying and pasting text does not. I was struck by an article on Einstein’s brain:

[T]he study raises “very important questions for which we don’t have an answer.” Among them are whether Einstein started off with a special brain that predisposed him to be a great physicist, or whether doing great physics caused certain parts of his brain to expand…“Einstein programmed his own brain,” Falk says, adding that when physics was ripe for new insights, “he had the right brain in the right place at the right time.”

When it comes to chess, I am certain that the digital tools available can help or hurt our efforts at improvement, depending how they are used. Nigel put it so well, lo, those many years ago, and it applies now more than ever:

It really doesn’t matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate a mind-numbing amount of information. In these days of a zillion different chess products this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do.

“Playing with the position” is indubitably the way to forge new neural connections in the brain relating to chess. I believe that Nigel also wrote somewhere that moving real pieces on a real “3-D” chess board is probably best for this kind brain stimulation, since it engages the tactile sense and a whole different spatial component as opposed to a computer screen.

Of course, computers can be very useful for certain things, just as smart phones can. I wouldn’t dream of giving them up or putting them down, so to speak. But I would suggest to you that reading “real” books, studying with real chess boards and, especially, training the memory and avoiding its loss due to the overuse of digital tools is going to be increasingly important in the future. Especially for those of us of a certain age.

As for me, I’m getting a couple of these books, and I am going to memorize a nice long list of phone numbers.

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