Saturday, July 16, 2011

Typing Away Our Memories?

"I think [technology] might hurt the type of memorization that we usually think about, like remembering the name of an actress, but I think there might be some benefits, too," said study author Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University in New York City. ...

Yes, that is true. Remember that fairy tale that human memory is infinite? I used to laugh at that because it was obvious to me that my memory was anything but infinite. So in my early 20's I set about learning as much as I could about memory and devised a simple memorisation system that must have been effective because many people comment on the strength of my memory. My typical response is anyone can have a good memory they just need to know the tricks. That isn't really true. I was fortunate in that I inherited a good memory ability and then built on that. Nonetheless all of us need to think about the implications of relying *too much* on modern technology as an information storage utility.
Consider the ubiquitous mobile phone. Do you always go to the Contact list and then select who to call? Instead of doing that make an honest attempt to remember the phone number. Now don't think that a one off attempt will be sufficient, you will need not only to make the attempt but also, and this is important, to practice recall of that information. I used a simple time frame for this. I would attempt recall at one hour after the initial viewing, then several hours later, then the following day. For myself that wasn't usually sufficient to lock the phone number in my memory. If you practice this task often enough you will find your future memory attempts to be increasingly successful. It takes time to acquire these memory skills and with all the modern technology some would argue it is redundant to bother remembering so much. That is missing the point. The point is practiced recall strengthens memory and improves brain function.

Plato argued that writing will destroy memory. Training Rabbis were required to memorize an entire book of the Old Testament, even the punctuation and spaces. In these days that seems incredible. Human memory is not infinite but it is safe to say that most of us are nowhere near utilising the full capacity of our memory. At various times in my life I have absorbed huge amounts of information in relation to various topics. One reason I did this was that when I was doing various tasks of a boring nature - working, driving the car, daydreaming, I could have on hand a big store of information to play with. For myself at least this was a great blessing because it meant I could keep thinking about problems I was addressing whilst driving the car or whatever and it is not that uncommon that during such times I come up with interesting insights and ideas. The problem then of course is making sure I remember those insights. If it was a particularly important insight I would either voice record it on my mobile phone or note it down when I returned home.

In this time we are greatly benefited by modern digital technology. Even as I type this I am listening to some new music I just downloaded onto my mobile phone. What a blessing smart phones are, to drift away listening to music whilst on the train to work or while walking along the street. I am not anti-technology, far from it, but I do believe that if we let modern technology do all the memory work for us we are not only limiting our mnemonic potential but the lack of mental exercise could be placing us at greater risk of age related cognitive impairment. In relation to memory this is particularly important because a key memory area of the brain, the hippocampus, is also very vulnerable to the ravages of aging.

Do yourself a favour, don't lean on technology so much. Learn again how to remember so that with age you will keep remembering.


Mercury said...

Some people have memory that seems close to infinite. I watched "60 minutes" just recently about chess wiz Magnus Carlsen, they how he could play 10 people and win without ever looking at the chess board, relying on memory of the moves they had made and he had made one at a time. I've seen my memory improve and worsen based on activity. I think "use it or lose it" basically sums up how the body and brain thrive. Just writing lists or relying on calendars weakens the memory, IMO. Plato was right that there's a tendency to let writing destroy memory. But you can work against this with effort. If you rely on a watch or phone for the date and time, you lose your sense of time without it. Listening to music, esp jazz and baroque classical, improves time perception and mathematical abilities, I think. I have noticed that listening to music helps do this unconsciously if you look at song's running time occasionally. I can count a minute of almost exactly just with music time and unconscious counting. If you do not challenge yourself to remember more, keep track of ideas and where you heard or read things, you will get dumber and dumber. The phones can help you become smarter, though, like auto-completing a number as you enter it, you can use the auto-complete to build up memory, but to just look in your contacts for a person wastes time and your memory. It's faster to just type their name with numbers or enter a part of the number you remember.

John said...

Yes, some people do have astounding memories. von Neumann had a phenomenal memory. People think that because we have all these devices that memory is not so important, thereby forgetting that working memory, the capacity to deal with many items for analysis, is fundamental to cognition. As a recent study of child prodigies demonstrated, the most noticeable quality was working memory, which surpassed IQ in the study. You can't have a working memory if you don't have anything in it. Additionally when you have a large memory store you can think on the spot, not having to rely on devices to keep you informed. Much more fun when you can let your head do the thinking without needing the fingers to do the typing.

To this day I avoid using devices to help my memory. The devices are still useful but oddly enough I find my memory is frustrating because I often remember things but can't find the things in bloody database engines! Can remember in a flash and then spend 10 minutes tracking down the reference.

Odd co-incidence you should mention this Mercury. Only last night my nephew, currently studying medicine, contacted me via facebook regarding all the memory work he has to do. So I told him that one of the biggest mistakes is doing revision. In exams we are not revising we are RECALLING information and it is that latter behavior which must be practised. So instead of continually re-reading our notes we need to practice recalling our notes, then read the notes to confirm our recall. This is something I learnt over 20 year ago so I was pleased to see a study several months ago which found that practicing recall is superior to revision.