I recently read this Slate article about the effect that “digital tools” like Google and Evernote have on our memory. Many people suspect that the ability to instantly Google any fact they’ve forgotten might be taking a toll on their memory, based on the adage “use it or lose it.” However, the article argues that the effects are “much weirder than that.”
First the author writes about transactive memory- the use of people around us to store memories. For example, married couples often subconsciously divide up the memory tasks- “the husband knows the in-laws’ birthdays and where the spare light bulbs are kept; the wife knows the bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo… Together, they know a lot. Separately, less so.”
One clever study has found that we’ve begun to treat technology as our memory spouses. Researcher Betsey Sparrow gave subjects sentences of random trivia, like “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” and either told them the facts would not be saved or that they would be saved, and specified in which folder they’d be saved in. When tested a few days later, those who were told the computer would save the facts were less likely to remember the facts than those who were told the computer would not save them. However, when she asked the students to remember whether a fact had been saved or erased, they were better at recalling the instances in which the facts had been saved in a particular folder. Thus, she argues, a different memory is strengthened in the cases in which we know information is being saved- specifically, the knowledge where we can re-find that info later.
While the argument doesn’t make the case that we should outsource all our memories as long we know where they’ve been outsourced to, it does emphasize that technology is not ruining our memories. In fact, there are benefits to knowing that information is stored digitally, such as the completeness of the information they store (for example, a quick stop at Wikipedia is bound to turn up way more info than you were actually wondering about, for better or for worse).
This feels a lot like the extended mind hypothesis – that the brain is not the home of all our knowledge. If I save some thoughts in a document on my computer and know exactly how to access them but may not be able to exactly reproduce the thoughts without prompting, are they a part of my mind?