Are we losing our ability to remember?
5 min read

Are we losing our ability to remember?

Is the Internet, and more generally, the computer, fundamentally impacting how our memory and brain function? In this post I explore the basic function of memory, and how some apps can help us build a second brain.
Are we losing our ability to remember?

The other day I had a bit of a crisis, I was worried that I was starting to have trouble with my memory. Something had to be wrong! I started to notice (increasingly!) my inability to recall trivial things; for example, the action points from a Zoom call, or a quote from a book that I had read a couple of months ago. Surely this can’t be normal?

Before calling the doctor’s office I did what any decent hypochondriac would do, and started googling. After clicking through a few pages, I began to feel a bit better. It was normal. Short term (or working) memory is inefficient, and unless I revisit the thing I’m trying to remember a few times, I’m most likely going to forget it. And no, it’s not a side effect of turning thirty. Phew.

It’s a “feature, not a bug” of how our memory systems are designed.

Our memory is made up of not one, nor two, but three components: 1) a sensory register, 2) working memory, and 3) long-term memory.

When I look back at my childhood or I remember some basic words from French, I'm drawing on portions of my brain involved in long-term memory. But when I'm trying to hold a few ideas in mind to connect them together so I can understand a concept or solve a problem, I'm using my working memory.

With my health crisis averted, I got thinking about technology and its impact (positive and negative) on the way the brain, and memory, function. With all the knowledge I could ever need at my fingertips, alongside note taking apps and the smartphones that are now an extension of our physical being -- am I being lazy or efficient, or a mixture of the two? Much like our overactive fight-or-flight response, has evolution not had a chance to adapt or catch-up with the mind of today versus our ancestors’?

Four chunks of information

We ‘can’t remember’ things because there is a limit to what we can hold in our working memory. Researchers used to think that it could hold around seven items or chunks, but now it’s widely believed that the working memory only holds about four chunks of information.

If you’re anything like me you’ll have to repeat something to yourself until you have a chance to write it down. Repetitions are needed so that natural dissipating processes don’t suck the memories away. How many times have you found yourself shutting your eyes to keep other things from intruding into the limited slots of your working memory as you concentrate?

I believe that we need to offload from our working memory as soon as possible.

With the goal historically being, before computers, to move it to long-term memory. If this didn’t happen -- you’d essentially be waving goodbye to that memory.

Moving a memory from ‘working’ to ‘long-term’ takes time and practice.

There’s a steep drop in what you remember, anyway. The ‘forgetting curve’, as it’s called, is steepest during the first twenty-four hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain. What you remember after day one has a good chance of still being retained after thirty.

Spaced repetition

To improve retention, spaced repetition is typically used. This technique involves repeating what you're trying to retain, ensuring to space the repetition out. Repeating a new vocabulary word or a problem solving technique for example over a number of days.

The good news is, our long-term memory has room for billions of items. In fact there can be so many items they can bury each other. It can be difficult for you to find the information you need unless you practice and repeat at least a few times. This allows the synoptic connections in the brain to form and strengthen into a lasting structure.

Long-term memory is important because it's where you store fundamental concepts and techniques that are often involved in whatever you're learning about.

Having strong foundations in your long-term memory also makes the working memory more efficient, and able to connect dots from wider, more abstract, fields. It gives our thinking ‘richness’ and ‘associative access’.

Richness refers to the theory that a large number of things we have apparently forgotten all about are still there, somewhere, and add depth to our thinking. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations  — memories can be triggered by related words, by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.

Offloading memory

But now, of course, we don’t bother to do all of the hard work of committing many things to our long-term memory. We have devices -- and the internet -- to remember stuff for us.

When I think back to when I started journaling on my iPad and laptop, as well as using apps like Obsidian that are focused on ‘networked thought’, it is interesting to hypothesise how they have potentially impacted the fundamental chemistry or feedback loops in my brain.

For me, they have helped reduce my cognitive load by letting me off-load much of what goes on in my brain to an external entity. In this day and age, this recall memory has become less necessary. Recognition memory is more important (i.e. the ability to judge that a currently present object, person, place, or event, has previously been encountered or experienced).

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalised memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it.

If you know that you ‘know’ something, and you know how to retrieve it (thank you Google) that performs pretty much the same function as having a brain stuffed with lots of long-term memories. And the new ‘networked thought’ apps allow us to make interesting connections between these various bits of stored knowledge in much the same way that a well-stocked memory does.

Using our second brain

So I wouldn’t say we are losing our ability to remember, as I posed at the start of this post. I think people (me included) just don’t do enough work to move stuff from our working memory into our long-term memory.

Our decreased reliance on recall memory and our  ever-decreasing attention spans may not be the disaster that I first feared.

I think that the internet and apps focused on network thinking do assist us. They do act as a second brain. And I think that  makes us more efficient.


Cover photo by Sarandy Westfall on Unsplash
Thanks to Jonathan for reading through early drafts of this post.
For discussion, check out this post on Hacker News.  

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