Memory: A reality check

This weekend I had dinner with friends and we discussed an occasion where the two others distinctly remembered a previous outing (and a discussion about tipping) and I couldn’t recall this at all. Not only did I not recall the event, I also didn’t think that the behaviour described was something that I would say or do. I couldn’t check it on Wikipedia, nor was there a log on Facebook/Twitter or other social media. So that was that, I just had to accept that this had happened as I was in the minority.

Ok, so much for the personal anecdote. However, it does beg the question: Is our perception of (historical) reality reliable? Furthermore, is our ability to remember things changing due to technology?

Through my readings, I came across the wonderful website of BrainPickings. In particular, upon reviewing the effect of technology on remembering, the following paragraphs is poignant, albeit in relation to tip-of-the-tongue recall: ”

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.

What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

As a lecturer, I find that some students are less willing to engage in racking their brain, going into the chest of drawers that is their knowledge, which is built up from episodic and semantic memories. They tend to check Wikipedia instead and there is an entire journal devoted to computer assisted learning that tells us we need to understand how to embed technology in education. I am all for blended learning but think a certain skill will be lost if students can’t sit together in a seminar and ponder/deduct, without instantaneously knowing the answer, yet being comfortable with that uncertainty.

It would be interesting to see if, through the development of technology, we are moving towards higher uncertainty avoidant cultures at a macro level. It seems that, for now, this has only been explored the other way around: Do certain cultures affect adoption of ICT? This is because we view cultural values as guiding principles, stable over time, especially at the national level. Or, we embrace ICT as democratic enablers, causing revolutions such as the Arab Spring, although the jury’s out on the tenacity of old systems but we have not (yet) considered the impact on the evolvement of our cognitive abilities over time.

As a researcher, I wonder how the future of social scientific research will be affected if our lives are logged on social media and we may thus be less inclined to store personal knowledge or perceptions of the self in our ever expanding mental cupboard. So, we quickly cut-and-paste something on Facebook and our episodic and semantic memory abilities are not engaged, let alone reasoning and deduction. What if technology advances to such an extent that neuroadaptive systems allow us to update our status cognitively, without a keyboard? It seems that experts have considered the same questions. We would then not consciously process our state of mind and ‘work through it’ before sharing it with the rest of the world. That said, it seems some (trolls) are already devoid of any filter. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook will function as a new tool for longitudinal research on our psychological contract with humanity.

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I had a meeting with our University’s Dean of Law to discuss my novel on human smuggling. We also discussed Syria, which he described as “Hell on earth”. Bombing indisciminantly is not a solution, also due to the complexity of allegiances/role of Iran/oil, so beware what you vote for. He questioned usage of the 2007 Resposibility to Protect militarily. The Mid East is bursting at the tension seams and intervention by the US/EU adds fuel to fire, as much as it would annoy Putin.
It may be that the opposition (Free Syrian Army vs Al Nusra??) and Syrian gov need to fight it out and the world must provide aid to refugees. But it is a disaster.
Factsheets on aid make it clear how much is spent already and how difficult it is to reach people (EU commission Syria factsheet). Za’atari camp is an example of the misery ( BUT, controversially, the Jordan villagers nearby sees aid arrive while they live in poverty (irinnews.Org).
Knowing who to donate to is difficult. Mercy Corps tries to help refugees specifically and focuses on the local impact, but there are others too (if you prefer a religious org for example). I donated to the Red Cross per advice from a friend in Lebanon as the RC is non-political but again, you may believe in smaller local aid organisations.
There so many more humanitarian issues, I know this. I care about the environment and welfare of animals too. So why?
Because there are 2 million refugees outside Syria, half of them children, and 4.5 million displaced within the country. That is approx 30% of the population or Paris plus Los Angeles. The resolution of this tragedy requires collective efforts at (inter)national, organisational and individual level by humans for humans.

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Inspire in class.

In order to prepare students as a well-rounded global business professionals, the content of the degree BA International Business that I lead develops competencies to enable students to be effective in a global business context, exploring a variety of international business issues. They will also learn the fundamentals of marketing, human resource management, economics, operations management and accounting. Most of these modules use standard textbooks, seminar activities such as case study analysis and assessment such as presentations. We try to make it interesting with visuals such as videos. I am currently working on next year’s curriculum and lecture content.

Below are three examples of TED talks. TED is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”. Lecturers use videos in class to raise a question to be discussed in seminars or in course work.


Typical TED talk for first year students: What was the greatest invention of the industrial revolution? Hans Rosling makes the case for the washing machine.
Topics: Statistics, Economics, globalisation, technology, human resources
Typical questions: How are wealth and a washing machine connected to globalisation? How can statistics help the international manager? How would you, as a student, manage without a washing machine?

Typical TED talk for second year students: What makes a good idea? What is a theory or model? How do we know a global leader’s X Factor? Simon Sinek talks about leadership in action.
Topics: Multi-National Corporations, values and beliefs, leadership, management and human behaviour
Typical questions: How do we know business practices work? How can we recruit the best people? What is the evidence for the recipe for success?

Typical TED talk for final year students: How can we keep our global supply chains honest? Van Heerden makes the business case for fair labour.
Topics: Rule based vs. Consequence based decision making, cross cultural management, ethics, strategy.
Typical questions: Do companies have a corporate social responsibility? Do you agree with the speaker? Why/Why not?

In the end, I aim to provide students with the critical tools and mindset to analyse and identify responses to such questions. The class environment is a great context to explore perspectives of management, which is very important in the global environment.

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