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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


I was thinking somethign similar myself the other day. I had called a bodyshop to get them to come out and look at a dint on my car. The chap I needed to speak to was not in and as I was about to leave the house, the garage asked me for my mobile number. I had no idea what it was. In fact I have no idea what any numbers I use regularly are. They are all stored in my phones' memories and not mine. Strangely enough I know numbers I used to use a lot 20 years ago.

I am worried about that? No.

What does worry me is that the quality of my spelling has deteriorated. I put this down to spell checkers. It used to be I would think about the spelling of certain words as I wrote them out, not all words, but a good proportion of fairly complex words. Like "deteriorated" for example, it's easy to spell but I suppose somewhere in the back of my head I am using methods I learned as a kid to get the letters out in the right order. Well with spell checkers there's no need. You can bash out the forst approximation of the word that might be in your head and have the machine do the rest for you. Without use the old spelling methods and routines kind of fall apart.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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