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The downside of the outboard brain

The fate of human memory

Clive Thompson writes on a phenomenon I think about constantly: if you really do start entrusting all your ephemeral memory work to external systems, might your wetware start to atrophy?

Apparently, yes:

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

Haha, big joke, right? Not for me. Between me and TextExpander, only one of us knows my new VoIP number by heart. Without TE to paste it anywhere on command? Yep, I'd have to look up my own phone number. Sad.

But, Clive goes on:

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.

And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I'm using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat...

And, in closing...

At the very least, I'd like to be able to remember my own phone number.

Now thinking that's something I might want to work on too.

Joe's picture

Not bothered by my dependency

I have a pretty poor memory anyway, and as a scientist I'm in the habit of writing down lots of minutia. This way, I can look up details of experiments later. This has transgressed into other facets of my life as well - keeping a log in my kitchen of ways I've tweaked recipes to improve them, things that didn't work well, ideas of how to alter recipes in the future, and so forth.

My dependency on writing information down is increasing, and this regularly frustrates my wife. It usually goes something like, "What time are you scheduled to give that lecture tomorrow?" My response: "Hold on, let me look it up. I wrote it down so I wouldn't have to remember!"

Until my lack of ability to remember a telephone number, or the time of an appointment, really affects my life, I've decided not to worry about the fact that I don't memorize as much as I used to. The fact that I back this information up so I won't ever lose it all is quite comforting, as this seems to be the main scenario brought up in this thread in which not having Your Favorite Information memorized seems to have negatively impacted people.

My take on the issue: I don't memorize phone numbers because that is what a phone book (or Address Book) is for. I don't see the argument for spell-checkers being responsible for a perceived decrease in spelling ability, because a spell-checker is merely an electronic dictionary. Instead of spending time pulling a tome off of the shelf and looking up a word, you do it more efficiently by using a computer, and you get the same result. Whether you then take the opportunity to commit the correct spelling of a word to memory is up to you, regardless of whether you saw the correct spelling in a physical dictionary or in your word processor's dictionary.

You see, with phone books and dictionaries, we're already slaves to looking information up. We've been doing it for a long time, and now we're just doing it in different (more technologically advanced) ways. Good for us! There has always been too much information to remember, and I think we're just dealing with that more effectively now. I don't see reduced mental capacity, I see an increase in the amount of information. I guess my glass is half-full.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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