Modern cognitive scientists have realized that much of human intelligence is tied to memory. Their research is mostly in terms of “working memory,” or the ability to “hold” multiple things in the “front of one’s mind” and make connections and synthesize distinct pieces of information.

Besides working memory, having powerful long-term memory contributes significantly to intelligence and academic prowess. Imagine if you could remember 10% or 20% more of everything you have ever read or every insight or “light bulb moment” you have ever had? So much of what our minds produce in terms of thought, cognition, and understanding are like momentary flashes that disappear in the ether after a brief amount of time, but if we could only hold on to them in our memories, our insight and knowledge would grow instead of remain in a state of stasis. (By the way, keeping a diary or recording your thoughts goes a long way in helping with retention.)

Anyway, my point is this: isn’t it unfortunate how little of modern education focuses on memorization and building a child’s memory capacity? From my experience attending public school in the US a couple of decades ago, there was virtually no attention paid to this in the curriculum. And I think the situation is similar today.

In fact, to say that one’s schooling involved “rote memorization” is essentially an insult. The ultimate cognitive skill modern education aims to inculcate is “critical thinking.” Not that critical thinking is a bad thing, depending on what one means by that term. But memorization, in contrast, is often associated with mindlessness and backwardness, whereas current scientific research shows memory is a crucial component of overall intelligence.

If you look at Islamic education prior to modernity and the colonization of the Muslim world, so much of it was devoted to memorization, especially for children and young adults. To this day in Egypt, for example, many children start off their education by beginning the memorization of the Quran. We also read about young adults in parts of Africa and South Asia who have memorized not only the Quran but also the 6 sahih books of hadith and other texts as well! Imagine some of the great Muslim scholars who memorized vast collections of hadith as well as legal manuscripts, commentaries, and super-commentaries AND THEN synthesized all that information in the “front of their minds” to adjudicate on this or that question or issue and write their own works and develop their methodologies, etc. This is not a romanticization of the past — these are simply facts.

And the reality is our modern technology cannot reproduce that. Sure, we have libraries of classical Islamic manuscripts and collections saved on our computers, on internet servers, in the “cloud.” But the working memory capacity that a person needs to synthesize significant amounts of information, that is a unique ability that vanishingly few people have today mostly because rote memorization is not a priority in our education anymore.

Does all this mean we lack the level of intelligence that our ancestors in the past had at their disposal…? If so, wouldn’t that be ironic considering how advanced and enlightened we see ourselves today vis-a-vis the people of the past, i.e., those simpletons of the dark ages.

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Practical next step, if you have children, get them on a Quranic memorization program. Or work on memorization yourself. As for working memory, there are a lot of online games to help improve it, e.g.,www.spaceminespatrol.com.