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Machines vs Memory

“You won’t always have a calculator on you, will you?” The lasting words of maths teachers, engrained in the memories of the masses — at least if you were born before the year 2000. Nobody could have predicted just how wrong they were. Now, everyone with a smartphone literally has a calculator, diary, library, radio station and so much more in their pockets — and on their person — from the moment they wake up to the time they go to sleep.

And whilst traditional aids such as post-it notes, cue cards and paper diaries are still lauded as valid, useful methods to promote memory retention, the opposite tends to be true for technology.


In a myriad of ways, technological advances can be viewed as detrimental to the human mind — the damaging effects of social media on mental health, our reduced attention span, our tendency to be shamefully anti-social whenever we have a device to hand… But how about the fact that “you know, what’s his name from thingy-me-bob...” is now just an internet search away. Why even bother trying to recall the actor’s name “manually”? Why retain the information in the first place? Let Google remember. That’s what it’s there for.

An image featuring a collection of retro technology items framed against yellow backgrounds, such as a calculator, a rotary phone, a floppy disk, a cassette tape, a pager, and an old Nokia mobile phone, surrounding a pink thought bubble with the words "THINK OR REMEMBER" in the centre.

Are the Machines Helping?

​In 1985, social psychologist Daniel Wegner proposed a memory mechanism known as “transactive memory” whereby groups of people would collectively encode, store and retrieve knowledge. In theory, you could then rely on your partner to remember when the bills are due, and you remember the family birthdays. With the assurance that someone else will remember something, the requirement for us to remember it too is vastly reduced. 


The same notion is true of machines and our relationship with them. Their ability to “remember” important information — from meeting times to addresses and phone numbers — has relieved us of any pressure to do so. In the same way that calculators have replaced the need to know how to do long multiplication in all but a handful of circumstances, like appearing on Countdown


It could be argued that our memories are simply adjusting as technology advances. 

Information on Tap

Researchers have found that technology can impact how much information we take in and retain. CEO of The Energy Project, Tony Schwartz likens our brains to a full glass of water: when you pour more in the glass, the existing water overflows. Just as we put more information from technology into our brains, the old stuff leaves. 


I can confidently recite key phone numbers from my childhood, including my BT chargecard number which allowed me to call home from a payphone for free. And it’s not just numbers… I know every word of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, having memorised the lyrics on a road trip with friends. All useless information! 


Ask me to remember the one word name of that now-potentially-useful software vendor I met a conference, however, and I soon become unstuck. 


Back in the day, I had to remember phone numbers (or face flipping through the Yellow Pages every time I made a call), now I don’t. When pretty much everything you could ever need to know is a few strokes away on a keypad, why waste brain capacity by retaining it? Even the forgotten software vendor’s details could be unearthed with a simple Google search. 


The most profound impact of technology on how we approach our day-to-day lives can been seen in our short-term memory, otherwise known as “working memory”. 


Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, wrote in Wired in 2010:


"The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.”

It's a particularly interesting point when you consider our obsession with taking photos or recording our experiences. How many events have you been to recently where you haven’t watched at least some of it through the screen of the person in front of you? Maybe you are that person, always wanting to “capture the moment” — however low-res the video or poorly composed the shot. 

A creative depiction of a brain with areas highlighted in pink and yellow, being analysed by two figures in lab coats. The figures interact with floating icons symbolising sight, temperature, speech, and touch, against a pale backdrop.

A Visual Memory

There is evidence to suggest that capturing moments with a camera can actually prevent you from retaining the experience as a whole. Researcher Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in the US describes this as the "photo-taking impairment effect." Catchy, right?


Henkel recruited 28 people for a tour of the university’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. They paused in front of 30 different objects, assigning 15 to be observed and the other 15 to be photographed. It may or may not surprise you that the participants had more trouble remembering the objects they photographed when tested the following day. 


Henkel said: 


"When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves - it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.”


Attention is key to forming memories — who knew?! It has certainly made me reconsider my television-viewing etiquette. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has encountered a less than favourable response from their other half when complaining that the plot of the latest Sky Atlantic thriller makes no sense, having missed half of the visual clues whilst mindlessly scrolling through email notifications. If you’re checking emails, you’ve checked out — that’s the long and short of it, and no amount of excuse-making will change that fact. 


But all hope is not lost. There is thinking out there that suggests computers can actually improve human memory physically. 


Michael Kahana, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, led a study demonstrating that machine-learning algorithms could be used to decode and enhance human memory by triggering the delivery of precisely timed pulses of electricity to the brain. Whilst the study is certainly not light bedtime reading, there is a very interesting premise at its core — that memory failures are “often the result of ineffective coding.” 


Whether you remember this blog or not, one thing is for sure — the human brain is truly remarkable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Society spends billions on fancy gym memberships to train our bodies. So how about exploring the ways we can keep our brains in shape too? That is, if we want to hold onto memories beyond our camera roll and Instagram feed… 


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