Memory as the seed for learning

Back in India, I could spot at least a 100 bird species. For most of these species, I knew little about them other than how they looked.

Richard Feynman has articulated how knowing the name of something is not equivalent to knowing something. By knowing the name of energy, we do not even begin to understand energy – this mysterious, cosmic force. What, then, is the use of knowing all the names of those birds? Isn’t a bird by any other name just as beautiful?

A useful analogy here is that of a tree and a seed. A tree shelters entire ecosystems, whereas a seed is insignificant in comparison. But every large tree was once a tiny seed. Every seed has the potential to turn into a large and magnificent tree.

What we memorize can serve as a seed for further exploration. The underlying psychology is that of cognitive ease. Anything we have memorized is familiar to us, and in Daniel Kahneman’s words, “Familiarity breeds liking”. Our brain finds it easy to process familiar things. When we see a familiar word or phrase, it unconsciously makes us smile just a little. Familiar things feel good, and invite us to engage further with them. We like to chance upon people speaking our mother tongue in foreign countries, and look forward to reuniting with old friends. Similarly, our memory plants the seed for ease of cognition, which incentivizes engagement and learning.

There are several mysteries in the natural world waiting to be discovered – such as how Malabar pied hornbills can digest the deadly fruit of the poison nut tree, or how the tiny Tickell’s flowerpecker can bring down a giant tree by pollinating and propagating a deadly creeper along its trunk and branches. Of course, this knowledge is more accessible to people who know the names of these birds.

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