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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