Why memorizing things isn’t a waste of time

Those nursery rhymes and song lyrics are worth while

Do you remember the last time you memorized something — even a phone number? With technology ever at our fingertips, we don’t need to commit much of anything to memory now.

Yet, rote memory — the process of repeating information until it is lodged firmly in the brain — fell out of favor well before laptops, tablets and smartphones became part of our everyday lives. While earlier generations of students were routinely required to memorize poetry, great speeches, even the multiplication tables, educators had abandoned the practice as unproductive by the time most baby boomers were starting school.

A workout for your brain

But not everyone believes memorization is a waste of time and effort. Small children reciting nursery rhymes are honing their developing memories and gaining an introduction to language patterns.

At the other end of the age spectrum, “Older adults who work their brains through memorization are stimulating neural plasticity, which alters the brain’s neural pathways in response to new experiences,” says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “These functional brain changes occur whenever we acquire new knowledge or learn a new skill, and they appear to be important in warding off cognitive decline.”

And naming that tune works too

Music therapist Becky Wellman, PhD, LPMT, MT-BC, says memorization and recall of music, too, can boost latent memories, and she enjoys feedback from family caregivers who marvel as they attribute changes in their loved one to the power of music.

“It’s common when hearing music to recall previous pleasurable encounters with the same tune, so it’s not surprising that this still rings true in a population otherwise experiencing memory problems,” says Dr. Wellman. “What most people never expect, however, is that music can actually help build new memories in these same individuals.”

She explains that during music therapy, participants are actually able to learn new songs when “nothing else seems to stick.”

Research supports this. In a 2015 study by Juliette Palisson et al of 12 individuals with mild Alzheimer’s and 15 healthy controls reported in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, results showed that sung texts were better remembered than spoken texts, both immediately and after a retention delay, for both groups.

So go ahead: Memorize something. Or better yet, sing a song. There’s a world of wisdom out there that just might sharpen your brain and enrich your life.