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Offloading Memory

A few weeks ago, an article in Science on how search engines are changing the nature of memory became very popular in the news.  Specifically, if people know that they can easily look answers up instead of remembering them by rote, their recall of the answers themselves declines while their memory of where to find them becomes stronger.  Researchers call this type of recall “transactive memory.” 

Much as this sounds like the Pensieve device from Harry Potter, transactive memory isn’t new–think of when a group of people mutually try to recall the exact date or circumstances of a past event.  To some extent, expertise in a particular area is based on the ability to recall specific information about that field to the exclusion of other types of knowledge.  Which is why I can speak volumes on gender and the Middle East but frequently put the cheese away in the cutlery drawer (at least, this is my excuse.)  Some have suggested that getting ever-freer from rote memory tasks by offloading them to search engines will unlock greater potential for creativity: parts of the brain not being used to store facts (such as the appropriate location for cheese) can be used for critical thinking tasks instead.  How exactly that will play out is hard to say without more research. 

What got me thinking, though, was going to see a performance of One Man, Two Guv’nors the other day at the National Theatre.  If we really are offloading more and more rote memory to remote storage on the internet, then soon the only people regularly engaging in rote memory will be actors.  That is, in cultures where rote memory is not the dominant educational norm, the only people memorizing in that way will be actors.  And possibly waiters who don’t write things down.  Which is often the same thing.

How will this affect our evaluation of people able to quote verbatim, to remember phrases or facts exactly, instead of remembering where to look them up?  And what kinds of new thinking patterns will emerge when, instead of storing those pieces of data, the brain stores a map to where they are kept?

What I think is that, despite the brain having more room to think of other things, not having those pieces of information to hand will actually end up taking more time to solve certain types of cognitive problems.  Though I might have a good idea where to find certain pieces of information, it still takes me some time to physically retrieve it, usually more than it would if I could just remember it.  On the other hand, think of the example above: trying to remember the name of an actor, or a song, or the exact date you went to that party where Al Fanken showed up.  “They were in that film with Helen Mirren–no, not that film, the other one….it was playing the other afternoon at the bank right before we went for coffee…it was definitely in the spring, before you had your wisdom teeth out–or wait, was it AFTER you got the job at the paper plate factory?”

So perhaps, as in so many areas of life, technologically enhanced memory will be another case in which the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Now, who said that?

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