Completely Useless Trivia

Can someone please tell me what the evolutionary advantage is of knowing what a group of hummingbirds is called versus where I left my car keys? (It’s a “charm,” by the way.) And why is it that my brain would rather remind me that ducks have more neck bones than humans rather than remember when all of my friends’ birthdays are? And while we’re on the subject, is it necessary that I know that Tennessee Williams was born in Mississippi but not where my own grandparents were raised?

Yup. Just about everyone knows a little bit of useless trivia, tucked and filed away in the deep recesses of their brain. But why isn’t there enough room up there for important things, too?

I mean, it isn’t like we really get a chance to use any of these tidbits. That’s why it’s called “useless” trivia. I’m sorry to crush your hopes, but a criminal isn’t going to mug you and then say, “okay, if you call tell me all of the Jackson 5 members, I’ll give you back your wallet.” Unless you are dealing with the Sphinx, there isn’t a situation where any of this information is going to work in your favor.

So, why is it that we choose to remember useless things? Well, there’s the simple fact that they interest us. When we hear something we don’t know or when we learn something about our world, a neuron in our brain reaches out to touch another neuron. And that connection excites us. Our brains don’t care that we need to hold tight to that number for Chinese takeout. That’s practical and easy. Instead, our gray matter wants a challenge, a stimulant. That way, it can grow and better serve us.

But I think there’s an even less concrete reason, a less logical explanation, for why we retain useless facts way past their due date. For me, it simply comes down to sharing. I love being able to trade knowledge, and play “Did you know…?” with someone.  And it’s great to see someone else’s face light up with understanding and awareness about something new in their world. It’s a gift that you don’t have to pay for, and one that you’ll love to receive.

In the end, we all have to remember that life doesn’t have to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes, it is beautiful and exciting simply because it is there. I think this is the way that brains see the world when we find out a new fact: we are simply amazed that the knowledge exists and could care less about the “real world” application of it all.

So, keep learning and feed your head. Your facts may be useless, but they prove that you’ve been paying attention in a rather blissfully ignorant world.

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