People became less dependent on the contents of their own memory. This happened because we grew accustomed to writing down our thoughts and reading the thoughts that others had written down. The development of the printing press technology initiated change in the 15th century. As a member of a generation who grew up with the Internet, the Web, and mobile technology, I cannot emphasize enough the role they played. I noticed that I make less effort to memorize than I used to as these technologies have improved with me over time. My brain was functioning more like an index rather than a memory; I knew where I needed to go, but I didn’t know what it exactly was.
David Brooks, the popular New York Times columnist, says
“I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.”
Do you think we don’t have to memorize when we can easily store our thoughts on computers and have an easy and instant access to a voluminous amount of information online?
Some people claim that we can use our brain for other functions by offloading the data to an external memory. They say that artificial memory can replace our own memory. But this statement confuses working memory with long-term memory. The fact is that we don’t free up space in our brain for other functions when we fail to consolidate information.
In the process of consolidating a memory, our brain biochemically adjust the strength of synaptic connections. What’s surprising about the process is not this part, but the fact that the neurons in our brain grow entirely new synaptic terminal; it changes anatomically. Long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, and in the process, our brain grows and prunes synaptic terminals. Nelson Cowan, an expert on memory who teaches at the University of Missouri, writes, “the normal human brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory; the brain cannot be full.” Therefore, when we offload the data to an external memory, we simply just fail to hold it in our almost unlimited memory.
Moreover, our long-term memory is far more than a means of storage. First, it allows to learn better. Sheila Crowell, Clinical psychologist in The Neurobiology of Learning, explains that the very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future. This makes sense to me because we often use analogies to learn something new.
Second, memorization is a foundation of creative thinking because we connect ideas already in our memory during the think process. When we outsource our memory, we lose a chance of connecting ideas.
Third, we become bad at improvising if we stop memorizing. We still might have an access to the artificial storehouse when we write/program/speak, but the interface between human beings and a computer is not absolutely seamless yet. Almost always, we can access our biological memory faster than the artificial memory. We can certainly write and program faster if we store information in our unlimited memory. It is not convincing to see people googling while they speak.
To sum up, it makes the situation worse rather than better when we offload the data to an external memory. It places us in a vicious circle; the ability to write down our thoughts and instant access to the information discourage us to memorize, which makes us to rely more and more on artificial memory, and then, in turn, we become a bad learners, less creative and less agile. It’s absurd that we spend a large amount of time just memorizing at school, but memorization still matters.