So Long Ago I Can’t Remember: Memory, Technology, and Creativity

So Long Ago I Can’t Remember: Memory, Technology, and Creativity.

I recently read an interesting blog through Scientific American by the writer Maria Konnikova. In it, she writes about how memorization may help us be more creative. This is a counterintuitive idea in some ways because memorizing information or learning something by rote seems the antithesis of creativity. In explanation, she quotes the writer Joshua Foer, the winner of the U.S. memory championship, from his new book: “I think the notion is, more generally, that there is a relationship between having a furnished mind (which is obviously not the same thing as memorizing loads of trivia), and being able to generate new ideas. Creativity is, at some level, about linking disparate facts and ideas and drawing connections between notions that previously didn’t go together. For that to happen, a human mind has to have raw material to work with.”

This makes perfect sense. How can we create something new, put things together that have never before been put together, if we don’t really know things “by heart”? This makes me think of the great classical musicians. Great musicians know the music so well, so deeply that you both play it perfectly in terms of the intention of the composer AND you are able to add that ineffable creative flair. It’s only when you’ve totally mastered and memorized the music that you can put your own stamp on it and it becomes something special. Otherwise, it’s robotic.

These issues are incredibly relevant to how human memory is adapting to new information technologies. Research has recently shown that when we think we can look up information on the internet, we make less effort and are less likely to remember it. This idea is referred to as “transactive memory” – relying on other people or things to store information for us. I think of it as the External Second Brain phenomenon – using the internet and devices as our second brain so that we don’t have to hold all the things we need to know in our own brain. As a result, how much do we actually memorize anymore? I used to know phone numbers by heart – now, because they are all in my phone’s address book, I remember maybe five numbers and that’s it. How about little questions I’m wondering about, like: When was the first Alien movie released (okay, I saw Prometheus last week)? The process of getting the information is – 1. Look it up; 2. Say, “ah, right, interesting”; 3. Then with a 75% probability in my case forget it within a week. Information is like the things we buy at a dollar store – easily and cheaply obtained, and quickly disposed of.

A colleague in academia once told me about an exercise his department made their graduate students go through in which they presented their thesis projects – the information they should know the best, be masters of really – using an old-school flip board with paper and sharpies. Without the help of their PowerPoint slides and notes, they could barely describe their projects. They had not internalized it or memorized it because they didn’t need to. It was already in the slides. If they didn’t know something about their topic, they could just look it up with lightening speed. Only superficial memorization required.

In addition, the process of relating to and transcribing information has changed. Today, if students need to learn something, they can just cut and paste information from the internet or from documents on their computers. They often don’t need to type it in their own words, or even type it at all. They miss a key opportunity to review and understand what they are learning. We know that things are remembered better when they are effortfully entered into memory – through repetition, and using multiple modalities like writing it out and reading it. If you quickly and superficially read something, like we do all the time when we are on the internet or zooming from email to website to app, then you cannot put that information into memory as efficiently. For most of us, it just won’t stick.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the vast amounts of information we have at our fingertips aid us in our creative endeavors? Haven’t our world and the vision we have of what is possible expanded? Couldn’t this make us more creative? Perhaps, by delegating some information to our external second brains, we are simply freed up to focus our minds on what is important, or on what we want to create (credit to my student Lee Dunn for that point).

Also, I think many of us, me included, know that we NEED help negotiating the information glut that is our lives. We CAN’T keep everything we need to know memorized in our brains, so we need second brains like devices and the internet to help us. I don’t think we can or should always relate deeply to and memorize all the information we have to sift through. It is a critical skill to know what to focus on, what to skim, and what to let go of. This is perhaps the key ability of the digital age.

I also appreciate all the possibilities I have now that I would NEVER have had before were it not for the incredible breadth and speed of access to information. As a scientist, this has transformed my professional life for the good and the bad – along with opportunities comes the frequently discussed pressure to always work. But give up my devices? I’d rather give you my left arm (75% joking).

As a child developmentalist and psychologist, I feel that we have to acknowledge that these shifts in how we learn, remember, and create might start affecting us and our children – for good and bad – sooner than we think. This isn’t just the current generation saying “bah, these new fangled devices will ruin us (while shaking wrinkly fist)!!!” I think these changes are evolutionarily new, all-pervasive, and truly different. We as a society have to contend with these changes, our brains have to contend with these changes, and our children are growing up in a time in which memory as we think of it may be a think of the past.


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