29 States

How well do you retain information from grade school that you rarely use? mneptok recently pointed out statistics revealing that 70% of Americans could not find New Jersey on a map of the United States, which I found astounding. That got Amy and I to talking, and we decided to give ourselves a challenge. Printed out a blank map of the U.S. and gave ourselves an un-timed test to see how many state names we could fill in.

Taking the test was a fun, but jarring experience. After the gimme states are done, you start rummaging back to these distant memories of elementary school, chewing on a pencil, looking for associations between what are essentially arbitrary shapes and their names – no programming logic will help you here – pure memory power.

I expected to get about 40/50 states right, but only got 29. Was able to fill in names for almost all of them, but put a surprising number of them in the wrong slots. Amy blew me away with a sterling 48/50 correct. And as it turned out, I have to count myself as among the 70% of Americans who cannot find New Jersey on a map. Pathetic? Or just the natural result of not being able to retrieve information I haven’t used for years? (Note that I have a terrible head for geography in general — maps tend to overwhelm me, and I get lost in places I’ve lived for years, which probably has something to do with my score).

If you take the test (takes about 15 minutes), post your results here – I’d be curious to see how other people do. No advance study allowed.

Music: Jethro Tull :: Rover

22 Replies to “29 States”

  1. I got 34/50 and I’m Canadian.

    Canadians like to ridicule Americans for their cluelessness of Canadian geography. Given that their are only 10 provinces and 3 territories, it shouldn’t be that difficult. Give it a try :P

  2. Vic, that’s amazing but not surprising. When I lived in Australia in the 80s (I was an exchange student in my senior year of high school) I remember being shocked that Australians knew so much more about American history and politics than I did. I’ve heard many times since that this is true all over the world.

    I can tell you without looking at a map that I’d be able to place Victoria and Nova Scotia on a map of Canada, and that’s it. :(

  3. 50/50 states. 50/50 state capitals, too.

    Got all the Canuckian provinces, too, eh. ;)

    But … I’m a history nut. Social studies and kindred subjects were my favorites in grade school, middle school and high school. And I majored in a history-related subject.

    Ask me to do any math above algebra. You’ll get either a blank stare or gentle weeping.

    Our brains retain different things. Nature of the beast.

  4. Oh, and that test didn’t take 15 minutes. More like 2. Which is less a testament to my acumen than it is to Scot’s theory that “what you wrap your brain around naturally gets retained” is dead on.

    I didn’t have to think, it just tumbled out. Like auto-pilot. It’s not skill.

  5. mnep, that’s amazing (to me). Out of curiosity, is this information all stuff remembered from school, or do you think about state locations and capitals today? I ask this because Amy said that when she reads a story that mentions a state even in a passing way, she tries to visualize where it is, which is something that would never occur to me to do. For me, it’s more like “irrelevant to point of story, move on…” Which again just points to different ways of processing information.

  6. That’s an extremely difficult question to answer. When I read about Mississippi, I “just know” where it is. Is that because I remember from school, or because I read about Mississippi from time-to-time, which reënforces the factoid? Kinda a chicken/egg thing.

    And geography is never irrelevant. Imagine reading about a KKK rally in Tibet! What’s really irrelevant is calculus.

    But here we go again, all of us fixated on our pet subjects. ;)

  7. I would think that Jersey is easy to pick out, given it’s hourglass shape and the little phallus hanging off of the bottom of it….

    Then again, I did live there for 20 years. :P

  8. I got somewhere around 20, mostly the big blocky states in the West. Not coincidentally these are places I’ve lived or driven through and had to concern myself with the weather maps thereof. Except Idaho. What the big wedge next to Washington and Oregon was I had no idea. Also forgot Minnesota, despite having lived there for 4 years in college.

    I think pruning knowledge we don’t use from memory is a normal process. I’m sure I knew this stuff in grade school, but one can see how much use it’s been to me. I’m unclear why everyone is extoling the virtues of memorizing this stuff, it’s readily available information. Memorize stuff that isn’t, like birth dates of spouses, social security numbers, yadda yadda.

    Memorization is the lowest form of learning and, I suspect, the quickest to be forgotten if disused. When information is emmeshed in thought and memory you seldom forget it. When it’s monolithic and has no ties to anything but tests, it won’t last long. At least, that’s how it goes for me. Your brain may vary. :)


  9. I’m not even going to try, as I have a hard time already recalling just the names :-)

    But how about a little spot-the-reference?


    “Dude, you can’t just make up words!”

  10. 39, more than I thought I would. It helped that I grew up in Michigan and Moved to Texas. Most embarassing, I confused washington and oregon. I did know NJ but ended up with 5 completely blank states. I give myself a failing grade.

    Being a native michigander, I wonder the percentage of people confounded by the uper penninsula.

    Oh, and when did kansas move south, I am sure they were further north a few years ago.

  11. Scot, I got 46 out of 50, and it took me about 5 minutes. I couldn’t remember where Utah was, and totally forgot about Wyoming, so I missed those states entirely. Then I reversed Alabama and Mississippi, a stupid mistake especially since I have driven from Louisiana to Mississippi and should have remembered those states are adjacent. Otherwise, everything correct.

    I think this is because I’ve traveled the country a lot, and enjoy looking at maps — but I haven’t studied one in quite awhile, so I suppose it’s just basic knowledge by now.

    I’d be screwed if you asked me to name the capitals, though!

  12. 50/50, but I love to look at maps. Could not name many capitals though, that’s for sure!

    I had the same shock about 15 years ago when I first taught high school. We had kids at a Summer camp do the same exercise and hardly any could get more than a few states. I had kids calling Florida “California” and so on.

  13. sean, thanks for the tip on remembering Jersey (hourglass shaped). I can remember that.

    Jim, interesting that you missed Minn after living there 4 years – I lived in Mass for four years but couldn’t remember where it was on the map – I did get it right, but it was half luck, I was unsure about that one. Amy is from Minn and I’ve been to visit her parents there several times, but still got that one wrong.

    Griff, I know what you mean about states moving around without notice – I found that the Carolinas and Virginias had relocated themselves without warning. And the whole central strip of the country along the Mississippi river was a tangled mess – I filled them all in with some confidence, but ended up getting most of them wrong.

    Dylan, I’ve also done several motorcycle and car trips across country, but it didn’t seem to help — having navigated through the states myself didn’t seem to have any bearing on whether I could pick out their blobs on a blank map. I guess my brain just isn’t wired for geography. But I have some subtle neuropsych issues that probably have an impact on this (i.e. it’s not like I’ve never looked at a map, it’s that I’m missing a shelf in my brain capable of digesting/ retaining this kind of info).

  14. I must admit that I only scored 45/50. I couldn’t think of the names of Delaware, Colorado, and Kentucky, and managed to get Mississippi and Alabama mixed up.

  15. Don’t think I’ll be the test: I could probably get NY & California, oh yeah, Florida, and that’s about it. Actually, I think I might manage New Jersey as well, maybe 1 or 2 others, but as they’re all several thousand miles from me I can live without the knowledge.

    Interesting though what Amy says about learning places and then reading about them: I tend to find that with me it’s the opposite – I read about a place and then get the impetus to learn more about it. About 9 months ago I was reading a biography of Wilfred Thesiger, for a while he was Assistant District Commisioner of an out of the way place I’d never heard of before, in Western Sudan, called Darfur. I got interested in it, it stuck in my head. Since then I’ve heard the name many (too many) times.

    But as for memorizing – I’ve got enough of that on my plate right now, have about 10 pages-worth of lines to learn for this play I’m in, our first “off book” rehearsal is on Wednesday and I feel like I hardly know any lines yet.

  16. I wouldn’t worry about that- most people in the UK can probably name more American states than they can British counties/regions, and even then they’d probably only manage about 12.

    A friend of mine even asked me which state Idaho was in. Oh Curarsi. At least you learnt them in the first place!

  17. Got ’em all. But then, I never did learn my times tables – I’m hoplessly befuddled by numbers! But maps are visual, and exciting because they make me dream of travel and history and the forces of nature and what shapes people and animals.

    Sexy stuff, that.

  18. ugh, 35/50.

    I could name all but three (Nebraska, Maryland and Pennsylvania – damn!), but I kept switching things around. Reversed Wyoming and Montana, Louisiana and Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and a bunch more.

    Geography is different than other memorization. I usually retain all kinds of completely useless memorized stuff, but geography has a visual association to it that requires different brain calisthenics than say, the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

    Other than a direct flight to DC, I’ve never been east of Nevada in the US, so that could have something to do with it. The family has lived in the same part of CA for nearly 150 years, I probably know less about the midwest than the Middle East.

    On the plus side, I did a lot better than ten years ago when I was helping my nephew to learn them.

    I’ll console myself with the ability to do calculus. At least I could a few years ago – haven’t tried that lately either.

  19. A little late to the party, but I got all 50 too (~2 min). But that might have something to do with growing up & getting my edukayshun in New England, then moving out here (with a very brief stint in WI).

    Tend to be more of a visual person too…

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