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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.

LiamH's picture


You said:

"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"

That's a great point.

I was referring to words I know and know well.

Maybe I am not too bright and getting duller by the moment is an explanation. However, I was an okay/decent speller as a kid and it was as a kid that I developed certain practices and methods that caused me to do well in exams and the like.

I am not blaming my computer for this sudden deterioration. Nor am I seeking excuses for geting stupid. However, a good few people I know and who are not utterly stupid, have noticed something similar.

My own take is that my typing is so quick that I am, almost, verbalising stuff. Unfortunately, my rapid typing is often of poor quality and I am not going through routines that were once embedded in me after hours of learning, to spell those words. I am quite simply out of practice.

Perhaps, I also rattle off "shit" because I am disengaged from the subject I am typing about.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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