Memory and Intelligence: What’s The Difference?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Moonwalking With Einstein" by Joshua Foer. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What’s the difference between memory and intelligence? Does having a good memory make you more intelligent?

Memory and intelligence are often thought to go hand in hand. Many skills we associate with intelligence, like chess and test taking, are actually tied to memory.

Keep reading to find out the difference between memory and intelligence, and the connections.

Memory and Intelligence

Memory is related to many of the other things that go on in our brains, such as identity, expertise, intelligence, and our perception of time.

Because our memories are stored in a web of associations in our brains, whenever we encounter something new, our interpretation of it is filtered by what we already know. As a result, our memories of the past are constantly influencing our actions in the present. We behave the way we do because of our memories, and, therefore, our memories shape our identities. Therefore, working memory and intelligence can conflict.

Our memories also affect our expertise and intelligence. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that expertise isn’t a function of intuition or intelligence—it’s a matter of perceiving things and relating them to the patterns of associations we already have in our heads. Experts have seen so many versions of the same thing that when they came across a situation, they can instantly remember the most relevant previous experience and apply the correct response without even thinking. That’s part of how working memory and intelligence works.

  • For example, chess players can look at a board and come up with the ideal move within five seconds. They don’t have to consciously plan out moves in advance or try to predict what their opponent will do because they’re so familiar with board positions, they know how things will play out.

Finally, memory has a large effect on how we perceive the passing of time. Contrary to the old adage about time flying when you’re having fun, time appears to pass more quickly when we’re bored and more slowly when we’re doing interesting new things and making new memories. For example, as you get older, do you feel like time passes more quickly? This is because you’re making fewer memories than you did as a child when you were encountering things for the very first time.

We remember events in relation to other events, so the more memories we can lay down, the denser our network of associations. The denser the web, the more time it feels like we have. Some people make new memories with the express purpose of making their lives feel longer.

Forgetting

Scientists used to think that people remembered everything that had ever happened to them, and memories only became inaccessible because the cues were lost over time. However, this is not the case—memories do fade over time at the cellular level.

Memories fade most quickly in the hours and days after forming. Anything that’s left after a month tends to stay with us long-term. Interestingly, our memories change over time. We tend to remember our oldest memories in third person, as if we were watching them, and our newer memories from our own points of view. Sometimes our memories change so much they no longer even accurately record what happened. That’s what makes working memory and intelligence so complex.

Why don’t we remember anything before we were three or four? This should have been a very memorable time our lives—everything we encountered was new. It could be due to a few reasons: our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re three or four, most of our early learning is unconscious, and we don’t have language or a large existing web of associations. Even when we encounter new things, if we don’t have anything already in our heads to associate them with, they don’t stick.

Amnesia can also be responsible for forgetting. The acts of creating and recalling memories take place in different parts of the brain, so it’s possible to be unable to form new memories but still capable of remembering old ones, or vice versa. 

A History of Memory

In early human history, the only place to store knowledge was in your memory. No external memory aids, such as writing or calendars, existed. Additionally, because writing didn’t exist yet, the only way to transmit and preserve information for future generations was to communicate it orally. As a result, memory techniques were widely known and memory was an important marker of character and intelligence. The more you had memorized, the more you knew, and the more ethically you could act.

Writing started to appear in the 5th century BC, but the memory arts were still important. Early texts were written on scrolls in continuous text, with no chapter divisions, paragraphs, or even spaces between words. These texts were so difficult to read that people used them primarily to remember things they already knew, rather than as a method for offloading their memories externally. For example, it would be difficult to sight-read the phrase HAPPYBIRTHDAYTOYOUHAPPYBIRTHDAYTOYOU unless you already knew what it said. It would also be impossible to pick out a particular section, such as the beginning of the second phrase, unless you already knew the order of information.

Writing and book-making improved over the centuries. The parchment codex (a bound book) replaced scrolls and punctuation evolved. A notable book on the memory arts was written sometime between 86-82 BC, the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Mnemonists still refer to this book today.

The game-changer for the utility of books as external memory aids was the index. In the 13th century AD, the first index-like structure appeared, the concordance of the Bible. A concordance is a list of words and phrases with a locator that tells you where in a work they appear. Using a concordance, for the first time, you could find a specific piece of information without already knowing the organization of the work.

Around 1440, the printing press appeared. Now, books were easier to make and reproduce, and they became affordable. Interestingly, memory techniques experienced a renaissance even though they were less necessary than ever. Giulio Camillo tried to build a “Theater of Memory,” a building that would house every piece of knowledge in the universe, and Giordano Bruno built a device that would let him turn a word into an image (it worked a bit like a cipher wheel).

From the nineteenth century on, however, memory became less important to the general public. Memory techniques are no longer taught in school, and a good memory is impressive, but more of a party trick than a virtue. These days, most of us rely on external memories such as calendars and phones to remember things for us. This changed the way people thought of the connection between memory and intelligence.

Example: Chess

Historically, chess has been a test of intellect—you have to be smart to plan moves many turns in advance and predict your opponent’s behavior. However, when Russian scientists tested chess players’ perception and cognition in the 1920s, the chess players didn’t do any better than the average person. 

Adriaan de Groot also looked at chess players in the 1940s. De Groot set up boards in a way that there was an objectively correct but not clearly visible move. He gave the boards to masters and asked them to think aloud. He learned, to his surprise, that chess masters don’t analyze the board or plan moves, they just instinctively see the ideal move right away, usually within five seconds. 

Further studies of master chess players, such as where they focus their eyes on the board or what parts of the brain they use, revealed that they chunk the board. To make moves, masters recognized configurations that they’d seen before and knew the outcomes of. Researchers concluded that the best indicator of skill at chess is your ability to memorize board positions, not your intelligence. 

However, while masters were good at memorizing boards, they weren’t better than anyone else at general memorization. In fact, when given chess boards that were just random arrangements of pieces in locations that could never happen in a real game, they weren’t even good at memorizing those. This is because a random arrangement of pieces on a board doesn’t have any context—a player never would have seen an impossible-to-arrive-at arrangement before. This helps explain the difference between memory and intelligence.

Memory and intelligence are not necessarily related. You can actually use memory techniques to train yourself to have a good memory.

Memory and Intelligence: What’s The Difference?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Moonwalking With Einstein summary:

  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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