The Importance of Memory in Reaching the Flow State

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does memory have to do with the flow state? What are some common memory-dependent activities? Why does today’s society devalue memory?

The importance of memory shouldn’t be overlooked. Although it’s been determined that memorization isn’t the most optimal learning device, it’s still important for other reasons. Memory activities such as recounting your ancestry, repeating riddles and sayings, and creating ordered systems can promote flow.

Keep reading to learn about the link between memory and flow.

Memory and Flow

The importance of memory when it comes to flow should not be overlooked. Memory is one of the most important mental skills. It allows us to retain knowledge, build on it, and share it with others. Before the development of writing systems, remembering information and sharing it orally was the only way to communicate information. For individuals, memory helps build knowledge that orders the mind and life and builds confidence in our skills and abilities.

Here are two common activities that depend on memory:

1. Recounting your ancestry. Before we had writing systems, recalling our ancestors was one of the oldest ways of ordering our life. Detailing the members of your family from past to present develops or reinforces your identity and is enjoyable because you have a specific goal that requires effort. Even today, when many feel disconnected from their ancestral past, it’s still enjoyable to think about where you’ve come from.

2. Riddles, sayings, and verses. Our ancestors remembered information by packaging it into riddles, sayings, poetry, lists, and more. Information included health tips, edible plants, and inheritance customs.

In some cultures, elders held riddling competitions. One elder would sing riddles in front of the whole community and ask another elder to guess what they meant. Solving the riddles required logical reasoning and the riddles themselves conveyed useful information to the community at large.

In addition to memory, solving a riddle requires possessing some problem-solving ability and specialized knowledge—things memory enables you to learn and retain.

The Devaluing of Memory

The oldest records show that having a good memory has long been held in high esteem. But in the past century, studies of children determined that memorization isn’t the most optimal learning device, and the emphasis on memorization was phased out of schools. Later, the widespread availability of written and electronic records made having a good memory even less important. Today, a good memory is considered most useful for competing on game shows or doing trivia.

Memorization may not be the best learning device, but it’s a great skill to have to create an ordered mind: Regardless of your circumstances, you can enjoy revisiting the stories, concepts, chemical formulas, song lyrics, or whatever you choose to memorize without needing external stimulation. But you have to want to learn and share the information for its intrinsic value; if you learn and share information just to boost your own ego and control your environment, you won’t feel as satisfied as if you do it to order your consciousness.

To select the right information, decide what interests you and pay attention to it. Learn what specific information interests you most and plan to memorize it. For example, if you’re interested in the history of the Civil War, you might discover that you’re most interested in the battles that involved artillery. Structuring memorization around tasks you care about gives you a sense of control and makes it less of a chore. 

Consider carrying snippets of information that interests you in order to review it when you’re feeling out of sorts, or have a free moment and want to commit it to memory. This can boost your mood.

Ordered Systems

In addition to memory, giving something order requires two steps:

1. Naming and numbering. Giving something a name, or a corresponding word, helps you mentally categorize things and think in the abstract. Numbering something gives it a quantity.

2. Creating concepts. With names and numbers, you can create concepts to help you understand how things relate to one another. For example, in the 6th-century-B.C.E. in Ancient Greece, Pythagoras and his students tried to discover “numerical laws” that could apply to multiple disciplines, such as music, geometry, and astronomy. Their effort is similar to religion, which seeks to explain how the universe works. The formulas and proofs created during these times supported activities such as map making and predicting seasonal changes, and gave rise to experimental science.

Imagining hypothetical situations helps people create concepts in a similar way to solving riddles. For example, Archytas was a 4th-century-B.C.E. town leader who wondered what would happen if he walked to the edge of the universe and stuck out a stick. He reasoned that he’d be able to extend the stick past the edge, which meant that the universe was infinite. Later, Einstein developed his theory of relativity in a similar way by imagining seeing the time on a clock tower from two trains going different speeds. 

Thinking Is Pleasurable

People developed disciplines such as mathematics and the sciences because thinking and the order it provides was pleasurable—if it weren’t, they might not have developed these disciplines. 

But many historians disagree, contending that material determinism—the materials available—dictate how people live. For example, they’d argue that geometry and arithmetic were invented because civilizations such as the Ancient Egyptians needed them to build irrigation systems. In other words, external phenomena, such as needing a new technology, were responsible for the creative feats a society achieved.

But Csikszentmihalyi thinks this is too simplistic. While external phenomena may determine the ideas that members of a society focus on, it can’t always explain where those ideas came from. For example, though World War II accelerated research around the development of atomic bombs, the idea of creating such a weapon was developed during more peaceful times by European physicists at a Danish brewery. Put simply, people like thinking so much that they often develop ideas without thinking about the rewards they could gain from them, or their consequences. 

Being familiar with a subject and thinking about it can grow your knowledge of as well or better than developing it through external inputs. Philosophers especially are famous for seeming absent-minded when they’re actually hyper-focused thinkers. For example, Democritus, a Greek philosopher, was sometimes seen sitting for days lost in thought and people thought he was ill. Hippocrates, a doctor, tended him and determined he wasn’t going out of his mind; he was dialed into thinking about how the world worked.

The Importance of Memory in Reaching the Flow State

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  • Why people feel the happiest when they're in the "flow state"
  • What activities and personality traits promote flow
  • Why you may have a paradoxical relationship with work and leisure

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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