Selection Is a Key Process in Developing Knowledge

Sönke Ahrens recounts the story of a man named Solomon Shereshevsky (studied by psychologist Aleksandr Romanovich Luria), who had the “gift” of being able to remember nearly everything. His supervisor thought he was was lazy because he did not take any notes during their meetings. Yet, when he confronted Shereshevsky, he was shocked when Shereshevsky could recount verbatim what was said not only in their most recent meetings but seemingly in all their previous meetings.

Many people—particularly academics—might think this would be a tremendous gift, something akin to a superpower. For some applications it very well may be. But Ahrens makes the important point that selection is a critical component of learning and understanding. While Shereshevsky could remember minute details about his personal interactions and the text of books he had read years ago, he struggled to make sense of anything. He lacked the ability to summarize and integrate discrete details in order to gain knowledge and understanding (Ahrens, 98–100). In support of his thesis, Ahrens quotes William James:

Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. And in this case of memory its utility is obvious. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing. It would take as long for us to recall a space of time as it took the original time to elapse, and we should never get ahead with our thinking. (William James 1890, 680)

Ahrens concludes:

It should be obvious that for academic thinking and writing, the gift of being able to remember everything is a serious liability (Ahrens, 100).

Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers, Kindle edition, 2017.



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