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 thing of the past.


172 thoughts on “So Long Ago I Can’t Remember: Memory, Technology, and Creativity

  1. How very true. The prevalence and reach of search engines and Twitter means that our attention spans have definitely shortened and we use our memories in completely different ways.

      1. Awesome, thanks! I’m definitely a Nathan Fillion fan. You’re not a Browncoat by chance? (if you’re not, this is a VERY geeky Nathan Fillion reference – i.e., “Firefly” and “Serenity”)

  2. Like with all things, I think this requires a balanced perspective: We should encourage children to practice “rote memorization” on occasion, just as they should know where to find the information if they don’t know it by heart.

    For example, the fact that as a child I memorized the 50 states in alphabetical order truly has helped me more than once in life — in particular during armchair Jeopardy competitions with my family! 😉

    1. I totally agree. I think with all these discussions about child development and technology, it’s just about finding the balance. I don’t think any of these technological changes could be all good or all bad for development. But the trick is finding the right balance, especially because there really isn’t much in the way of scientific knowledge to guide us.

  3. Hey Tracy, good read. I’m 28 and I recently moved back in with my 52-year old father who shakes his ‘wrinkly fist’ at me for always being on my laptop. He doesn’t understand that the internet is where I work. (He still needs help sending emails and checking his bank statements online). This point you made, that “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” is dead on. The hardest part is spending time with my friends who pay more attention to their iphones than to our conversation. It’s like these devices are hypnosis machines that give normal and high-functioning people ADD. In this case paying attention to the present moment, the people you are with, the people you love, that’s what matters…not a facebook update.
    Perhaps the most threatening aspect of a technology and information saturated world is what I call the Hardware Issue. When new software is loaded on to a device that’s hardware is out of date and unable to process the new information, the processing speed goes down and sometimes the device crashes. As a psychologist you can understand best what a the human brain “crashing” would look like. Not pretty.

    Are we giving ourselves the 21st century’s version of a lobotomy? A techno-lobotomy 😉

  4. Great post. Though how to find a real balance in terms of memorising things and just googling them is a tough question. With no Internet it seems my brains were working faster and I saw more relations and correlations, other words, i thought more. Hmmm, but not to use what we got would be stupid, that’s true. Someone has to find a way to keep a healthy balance.

  5. Wow, thanks for helping alleviate some of the not-well thought out excessive-technology-is-melting-chlildren’s-brains feeling that I’ve been plagued with for awhile. This post really helped me to see the situation with more hopeful eyes. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! As a mom and psychologist, I also feel worried sometimes (ok, a lot of the time ;-)), but I think we just need to be healthy skeptics and keep asking whether and how much we have to say yes to all the technology choices they throw at us.

  6. I Found this fascinating. The concept of needing a “furnished” brain. Also, that the ability to look things up so quickly diminishes our ability to remember. I know that I retain information the longest if I have written it down — by long-hand — or said it out loud. I studied many hours by talking to my dog. Highlighting and shifting isn’t the same. And the fact that I don’t have to remember most things, is a truism but frightening. Right here and now I couldn’t tell you my kids’ phone numbers. I did write them and stashed them away for safety reasons, but I use my favorites list daily. On the other hand, years ago there was only one phone number to remember per household so there was just less information that needed to be retained. Some things do need to be memorized, though. Having a smart phone at age 6 is no excuse for not knowing your address without it. And it’s so handy if I don’t know, say where a small country is located and can look it up, but it would be nice to know that at some point I’d be able to remember what I looked up — and why. There is something great about someone being able to recite a “fun fact” while maintaining eye contact. It makes the fact much more alive because it was important enough for someone to remember.

    1. I know, that Foer quote (which it turns out is from his interview with Maria Konnikova, not his book) is just so fantastic! as a mom, I try to help my 3-year-old son keep his memory well-furnished – I talk to him all the time about his experiences and what he’s learned today, yesterday, and last week. I’m not so sure how my memory is doing. It seems much more sparsely furnished in there, but perhaps what I have left in memory is of better quality? Less Ikea ;-)?

  7. I can always gauge if I’ve been spending too much time on line by how ADD my life is. If I can’t concentrate, remember simple things (and not being able to remember certain things freaks me out!) I know its time to open up Rimbaud and memorize a poem.

  8. This is very interesting. I wonder if it plays into the theory that there are really no original ideas, and that our creative bursts come from somewhere … perhaps what we’ve already stored in our brains.

  9. I am currently reading ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell and he touches on this very subject. Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Interesting, thought provoking post. I won’t argue that lots of the information we google or otherwise gleam from electronic sources is quickly forgotten, but here’s my question:

    Given the exponential increase in the amount of information available to us 24/7/265, are we still retaining information (vital or trivial) at the same rate as 20-30 years ago?

    I too have moved most phone numbers from my brain to my phone, but I’d like to think that free space is being used by other globs of information that I’ve picked up elsewhere.

    Regardless, I love living in the Information Age. Last week, my wife and I were driving through rural Nebraska and our conversation led to a question we couldn’t answer. Ten years ago, I would likely have never learned the answer as I didn’t have the resources at my disposal to get the knowledge I was seeking. Now, with a smartphone we found the answer in no time. While I may not remember the answer in two weeks is – for me – beside the point, because I was able to have an intellectual itch scratched and I’ll take temporary knowledge over no knowledge.

    1. That’s a fantastic question and I have no idea what the answer is. And I’m the same with loving the Information Age – I kvetch and wonder about where it’s all going, but at this point it would be painful to go back. I guess it’s just about making mindful choices.

      1. Perhaps I can help here and please feel free to correct me.
        Seeing as our brains are wired in a way that they prioritise through the info that we take in on what to store permanently and what to let go, as we can infer from the difference in the number of phone numbers the average Joe still remembers today with the advancement of smart phones and their ability to store thousands of numbers, and observing older generations forgetting may of the numbers they had to remember before smart phones came by, but learning and remembering how to use new technologies I would conclude that the rate is still the same but the priorities have changed seeing as we now have an external secondary mind to take part of the load off. Quite a biological and social evolution I would say since in nearly a decade the human brain has adopted to a huge environmental change.

        Though personally, since I love reading and assimilating information so much, I hate it because the ease by which I can retain information on my laptop by simple copy-paste doesn’t allow my brain to retain that information in its synapses.

      2. A really interesting idea you posit. I just don’t know – you could certainly be right. It’s very tricky to figure out how to study this in a thorough and smart way. Whatever the case, say the absolute rate is different because we can outsource so much memorization to devices: could it be a “use it or lost it” phenomenon in which we’ll just slowly over time lose the kind of memory capacity (in general or for specific types of info) that we typically have. This is especially a question I have for developing brains – the digital natives. Will they be different from the previous generation in this sense?

        Again, it’s definitely possible that this is not the case. With the advent of writing, did we just stop remembering stuff? No. But the more removed we become from engaging with information (e.g., just cutting and pasting stuff just as you point out), then the less we’ll probably encode into memory.

        And I agree, it’s an amazing evolution over a brief period! It’s happening no matter what we think. But thinking about it allows us to make some choices for ourselves and the next generation.

      3. Well so far as the memory capacity is concerned solving mental exercises even after you retire has been proven to reduce chances of developing Alzheimers, hasn’t it? There used to be tribes that before writing and paper came about had chosen historians who would memorize their tribe’s history. I think that depends purely up to the person and what he is going to make out of the numerous possibilities that the human brain offers. But if something is not needed it will simply not develop enough, as one can see in kids that have grown with animals in the wild like the real life “Jungle boy” a good few decades ago and one in Russia if I am not mistaken pretty recently.

        But it’s just like the arrival of paper. We don’t have to memorize as many things now because as you put it, we can offset the part of the burden to artificial devices of data storage, be that paper of smartphones and computers, for a more efficient utilization οf resources and to ensure that the most often needed information could be readily available from the brain (to save on resources) whereas the less often used info can be had with a bit of physical work. I think the reason we are attached so much to our computers and our smart phones is that the acces of information from either medium is almost just as easy and they have thus become indespensable. Think of it as brain with all the knowledge we posses being the hard drive, the knowledge that you use all day everyday loads onto ram memory which is much faster and wastes less power, and books etc are the cassetes, floppies, cd roms dvd’s and eventually external flash hard drives. I hope you get where I am going with this.

      4. I agree – it’s really about speed and efficiency, and what we want to spend our limited internal resources on, isn’t it? Whatever can buy us that becomes indispensable, feels addictive.

  11. Very interesting, how now much of our brain power is outside of our brains. Once humans memorized detailed, sequential, mission critical information via poem, chant, and ritual. The manuals of how to create exquisite swords, or work with stone, or heal wounds imprinted on the wiring of individual brains. Did those humans actually have more memory, or just specialize in a different way, their brains filled with details related to their specialized training? With books that information could be saved, passed on, and also no longer need memorized. Now we can carry a billion books in our pocket, the information of thousand of years summarized and catalogued. Perhaps we memorize less but initiate thought more? Do we actually synthesize fewer new ideas or just those ideas get lost in the sea of ideas? As we initiate questions for which we no longer need to store the answers, the raw data, are we really the brain, or merely input/output neurons for a growing, greater mind?

    1. These are such interesting possibilities. I know that when I effectively free up my brain by storing information elsewhere, I feel a new focus and energy. One issue here – that I think you’re pointing out, too – is that we are swamped by so much more information than ever before that it’s almost as if our human brains weren’t designed to handle it all (or at least we’re not sure how to use our brains yet to do so). Maybe the pressure of dealing with all this information will push our evolution forward in some amazing ways. Thanks for your thoughts!

  12. I love that quote: “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.” I’ve noticed how true this is about myself: a simple example would be vocabulary. If you have more vocabulary in your brain, you have more to work with to enable yourself to be creative. It’s the creative authors who use nuanced vocabularies that we love. This is just a simple example of how the engineering mind works; spawned by intelligent thinking and creativity.

  13. Really loved this post as it got me thinking – firstly I think it’s important to learn things by rote or i.e. thoroughly, because I think that often creativity comes from breaking rules, whether it be artistically, scientifically or whatever and I think you can only see/know how to do this by understanding something inside and out. As for our access to information,I work as a note taker for students with disabilities so I’m continuously writing down information and have to research and prep before the lectures – it’s almost like I’m doing the degree myself. But I’ve learned so much BECAUSE I have to write everything down and it’s still in their, much more than if I’d just googled and read about a particular topic. Maybe it’s more to do with the manner in which we now choose to use/process the information. Today’s technology gives you an almost McDonalds’ version of knowledge – we dip in to satisfy an immediate need such as an answer to a quiz question, but ultimately we don’t come away feeling satisfied nor have we had to properly learn the subject. Before you might have to read a number of books or articles etc. to get a full answer to your question – now you can literally write the question in a search engine and it will respond. I’m inclined to think that this access to information is perversely making us less intelligent. It doesn’t require any energy therefore it’s less likely it will stick.

  14. Your points on memory, information, and creativity directly impact 21st Century teaching and learning in ways educators today are struggling to address in classrooms around the globe. Writing curriculum based on an understanding of the current brain research on learning is essential. Thank you so much for your work, Tracy.

      1. Agreed!!!! But teachers need to be knowledgeable about how we learn and not get caught up in all the other
        STUFF thrown their way. Tracy, it’s a real dilemma in US Education. Finland seems to have figured it out as well as Canada. Memory is so important as we age, especially when all someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s is able to remember is poetry memorized as a kid or music lyrics. …sorry for the rambling, but I’m worried. The results of your work is so very important as a beacon for educators who want to make a difference.

      2. I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks for the encouraging words. We’re just starting to do the actual, rigorous research on these issues in my lab, and I’ll be sure to report what we find here – hot off the presses!

  15. Very interesting read. I’m currently reading a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” by Nicholas Carr, and he talks about the same things you mention. I, like him, have felt a very distinct shift in the way my brain works as I’ve grown up. The internet became popular when I was in middle/high school, but it really became all pervasive when I got to college. I feel as if am at a distinct disadvantage now when I try to read dense material; as if I cannot make myself read with the same level of focus I used to have. It’s sad, because were it not for my experience studying such material in the pre-all-pervasive-internet era, I might have stuck to the idea that I cannot, in fact, read such material, or that I am just not bright enough for it. I’m sure young people today feel this way, and they don’t know that it’s not about them, it’s about the way their brains have evolved. To me, this is incredibly sad, and I wish there was some way we could prevent it!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. The generational issues are so interesting! I’m older than you – email was just becoming popular when I was in college – so it has never occurred to me that I CAN’T focus when I have trouble doing so. Digital natives have a lot to sort through!

  16. Absolutely, I’m glad to see this from someone else beyond my rather fruitless pursuit and advocacy of digital platforms. I know the pitfalls of the virtual realm and its pervasiveness but really, to not grow with digital/social media, is to stop learning. The amount of knowledge I amass from the Internet space is so vast – I get to “meet” people talking about diseases, social media, education and writing – all online! And I can’t remember everything I read so I tweet about it, creating a log of articles that I find meaningful and valuable. Anyway, congrats on FP!

    1. Thanks! and I agree. The expanded world we now have access to is just incredible. I’m not a digital native, so I’m still awestruck by it sometimes when I take a step back.

      I’ve had the same experience as you with blogging – that it helps me hold on to ideas that I would otherwise never develop and would eventually forget. I never kept a diary, but blogging is different – the social component completely transforms the experience for me.

  17. I’m surprised about the masters students who were not able to present their theses without the visual aids of their power point slides. Isn’t a thesis presentation a demonstration of knowledge, rather than memory? I would never be able to memorize an entire thesis paper, but I’m confident that I could talk about my research for hours, if anyone was actually willing to listen that long. I think the significant effect of technology in education today is it’s role in the movement from memorization to greater depth of knowledge. I think you’d agree, that can’t be a bad thing, Thanks for the interesting articles in your blog. I’m enjoying reading them all.

    1. To be fair, this is anecdotal – but my colleague said that the students REALLY stumbled through it. I think the big issue was that the logic of their argument, which they had carefully crafted in their PowerPoint slides, eluded them when they had to explain their projects without mental props. If they had practiced doing it, I’m sure they could have, but off the cuff – not so much. And over time, with not having to do things off the cuff, how does that influence how we learn and remember? It’s a completely open question.

      I definitely agree that techology in education can offer greater depth of knowledge, but the benefits (as well as the costs) depend so much on how we choose to use these tools.

      thanks for your comment!

  18. Ray Bradbury said that the best way to become a great science fiction writer was to find and read as much great science fiction as possible. Certainly a correlation between memory and creativity there. But would knowing more phone numbers and movie release dates also help? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Let the internet memorize the boring stuff I say 🙂

  19. Your point about a second brain thing is quite interesting. What if we get to the point where nearly all knowledge is quickly computable and accessible (I believe Wolfram’s goal), and we begin walking around with computers and ear pieces which quickly tell us any and all the info we could possibly want or need to know. Perhaps this computer system would even record your personal daily activities and life so that you can remember any event. Sounds futuristic and scary (and perhaps highly abusable by the government), but somehow seems like a good alternative to the unreliable memory system we currently use. The other scary thought is that a rudimentary version of this is already possible.

  20. It makes sense. The internet is the next evolution in human thinking, akin to the vernacular/memory/thinking shifts that occurred when man began to write. The written tradition is vastly more analytic and flexible. The oral tradition, however offered things to the mind that writing does not (and vise versa). (read the alphabetic mind by Havelock… lots of good information on the switch from how information is passed (oral versus written), like you said above, old information can be used for new creation.. maybe Havelock has some insight in the switch to the internet 🙂
    it seems to me that search-engine-granted access to information is the newest incarnation of pen and paper… Great article!

    1. I agree! I think we can worry and wring our hands, but the more important thing is to wrap our heads around these changes, which are just reality, see the exciting possibilities and avoid the pitfalls. They are not going away. I haven’t read Havelock – thanks for mentioning!

  21. Dear Psyche, I think much of what you have written about memory and technology, well thought, and you make some good points. I actually thought tonight, before even sitting down to use this computer, that people, young people, eventually grow up and become adults. I compare these days, to my youth, I’m sure many people do.
    I think what it all comes down to, is, teaching people, young and old alike, to learn. And I’m not saying to teach them to learn how to memorize new technology, but to get real simple about it and realize, ok, – what really makes me happy here? Does sitting in front of the computer all day really make me happy? Does “having all the answers at my finger tips” make me feel like I really have all the answers ?
    I think there is definitely a battle going on between two worlds- and it is up to each of us to step out of our heads and put our feet back on the ground.
    I don’t really know how else to explain it , except to say, if you want something enough, you will do what it takes to have it.
    We have more control over our lives and selves than we want to deal with sometimes. And I think that people should start doing what it is in their heart to do, myself included.
    I think I am rambling now but there is a lot I understand but I think it is all very easy to figure out- Much, Much Easier than we want it or believe it to be.
    Take Care.

    1. I think the happiness issue you raise is so important, and not one that’s often part of the conversation. How happy are we hunched in front of our computers? Maybe we need to focus more on tuning into how technology is making us feel, and worry less about “missing” something.

      1. Sorry if I misunderstood. Just to clarify – the things we should worry less about missing in my opinion are the online things. There is so much to track that we can be absorbed into it like a black hole if we don’t set some limits. That is why we need to tune into the effects of different technologies (analog or digital for that matter) on our sense of well-being. And pull out when it becomes a stress rather than a tool.

  22. I believe that the internet is a wonderful tool to access a vast amount of information quickly and easily, and I agree with you that it can pose problems because we can just clip, copy and paste information without really understanding the context and value. It’s amazing how many times I’ve had to look the same things up, everything from the Magna Carta to movie details on IMDB. In a way it makes me sad because I love to learn and detest when I can’t remember something, but on the flip side I can always easily look something up again.

    I remember reading a pamphlet from the American Heart Association and I was supposed to finish reading the front page before turning to the next. In fact, I skipped the last few paragraphs before hastily turning the page over. Inside was a stunning statistic about how many people would turn the page without fully reading the content, which describes how impatient we’ve become as a society.

    Very insightful blog!

  23. Great post. For millennia, oral cultures relied on personal memory for everything: practical knowledge (is that plant safe to eat?), skills, group histories that were passed down over generations. The coming of writing and books sped up human progress (or at least change) quite a lot, so this process isn’t entirely new. I’m not so sure about the “making room in the brain” idea. The brain seems to be more like a muscle that needs to be used in order to keep in shape, rather than a closet that needs periodic cleaning, although maybe there’s a bit of that. I could google neuroscience and find out!

    A history professor always impressed me with the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to use his knowledge in off-the-cuff conversation. “If it isn’t in here,” he said, pointing to his head, “where is it?” He was talking about what you called mental furniture. You never know — and this is the thing about creativity — you never know what is going to be important, what you’re going to want at a given moment to make that unique connection.

    This isn’t to pooh-pooh the Internet. I love it, and use it to find out useful information that really does help my work. I often retype things, rather than cut and paste. It isn’t a lot, but as you said, the act of transferring information letter by letter and word by word does help make an impression on the brain.

    Anyway — great conversation you got going here!

    1. l like the brain is a muscle metaphor, too. Maybe furniture and muscle are complementary? The issue withe memory is not just what you have room for, but how you encode and retrieve information. Things may all be there, but if you haven’t endcoded something clearly, or if you don’t have clear access to memories in terms of how they are integrated with other items in your “palace of the mind,” then you can’t get at those memories.

      and of course, I love the internet, too! 🙂

  24. Memorising can mean you’re just regurgitating information and not really taking anything in (something I did with my science exams at school, I may have got good marks but after helping my brother revise for similar exams at the same level, nothing has stuck). Whereas my sociology knowledge (I’m a sociology student) is far greater and I can think ideas over myself without rote learning because I understand what I’m learning rather than just repeating the textbook.
    As for being in a digital age, we definitley are, all my assessments are submitted online and we no longer have to make extensive notes in lecutres because everythings online – something which means people get away without actually attending lectures.
    The increase in internet use can help with creativity as it gives writers the ability to publish work online, in e-books or on blogs.
    Lovely, insightful post.

  25. precisely! in this world, which is now dominated by technological changes, we should always be watchful of such things and think of the generation looking after us.

  26. Fascinating post. As a mother, home-schooler and teacher in various non-professional areas, and an adult with ADHD, this is very pertinent to my situation. I see the advantages of a second brain – especially when it comes to remembering schedules and tasks to do and having audible reminders. I have a daughter, who uses the internet to research information to use in her fiction writing. When people ask, what is the point of memorization these days, I am reminded of why people exercise. My dad jogged every morning for decades. Why? To be able to run faster in his job? Nope. He was an electrical engineer. He jogged because it made him healthier to do all the other things he wanted to do. I think that memorization can be useful, not only as a way to have facts at your fingertips, but also as a way to exercise your brain, so that as you get better at memorizing, you can learn more efficiently.

  27. Just yesterday I saw a reporter on ABC World News who used to work for our local NBC station here in Chicago. I couldn’t remember his name (Alex Perez), so I Googled “former NBC reporter who now works for ABC.” It took seconds to solve my mystery, but I was left wondering what effect this instant answer had on my memory. Ten years ago, I would’ve had to recall his name on my own. Google is both a blessing and a curse.

  28. Well, the Internet is useful for subject areas which is not one’s area of expertise/interest. The older you get and if you have taken alot of university courses, your head gets stuffed with a pile of information of which some is useful at different times in life. But not all of it.

    However we don’t want to lose the capacity to think critically and deeply about how to compare information in order to question, refute or validate the veracity of it. This to me, is very key in our sea of Internet information that can brainwash us to think there’s no other place to research/find information when in fact there is alot NOT on the Internet yet. Very valuable info. And some will never make it to the Internet for reasons of copyright protection, need for publishers to charge a fee, etc. All this free information is sometimes devaluing the skills of paid journalists (vs. bloggers who blog for free), scientists who may not get paid for their written research articles, etc.

  29. Excellent article. I had a nearly perfect memory while I was a kid, which helped me a lot in school. But as I went through my 20s, and a divorce from a mentally-abusive husband, my memory became very elusive. I thought that was because of the last few high-stress years, and would eventually come back with time. Now I wonder if it is because I no longer memorize anything (phone numbers, formulas, dates, etc). Your article has given me something to think about. I think I will try some memory exercises to see if they help in any way.
    By the way, I don’t know if the experiment with the master thesis students was the most thought out. After all, the presentation is not just presenting all the information of the thesis. It is also acting as a trigger for the student to remember and draw out all the countless amount of data about the thesis in his brain.

    1. Between stress and technology, we’re all in this boat. The thing with the thesis students wasn’t an experiment. It was just an informal exercise….so I agree, in many ways it didn’t give the students a fair shake. I agree – If they learned the material with the slides as prompts, that if you take that away, you’ve interrupted their “memory retrieval strategy” so to speak. Thanks for your thoughts!

  30. Last month I read an article that talked about using outside devices to store our memory. It said that this basically made us cyborgs because we now rely on computers to hold our memory and information for us. That must be at least partially true because I can’t remember exactly where I read it and had to search for it online ;^)

    Thank you for this well written and well thought out post!

      1. I believe strongly that Emotions and Intuition will begin to play an important part in the way we relate to ourselves and one another. It is going to change the way we communicate with one another and transform our self view as a species.

        I would love to chat with you more. Perhaps via email or facebook?

        please feel free to email me 🙂

  31. Great post. The point that you’ve brought up is very significant in approaches to education. Having been exposed to two systems of education–graduate school in the US (where I thought originality and creativity was emphasized) and secondary/ undergraduate education in India (where memorization was a very important skill), I thought both systems could benefit from the other’s approach. Ability to identify and recall material is very important to build your fundamentals on which the superstructure of creativity can stand. Otherwise, it becomes a very shaky foundation as I’ve seen with many students in the US.

    1. That gives you a fantastic perspective, and a great skill set! I’ve only been educated in the US system, but I started as an artist and musician and ended up a scientist, so in that sense, I’ve seen multiple sides. It was pretty mind-bending to shift from one to the other in my early 20s I can tell you. A read paradigm shift. Now with both aspects somewhat integrated, perhaps I’m better for it?

  32. Tracy,

    Hats off to you for a wonderful post.

    This is a long comment that has no scientific value. There might be here other comments shorter and more important. Please read them first.

    I’m not sure what to make of my memory. I can say the English alphabet backwards in about 4 seconds, I know by heart some Shakespeare quotes and some other poems, the first pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and some mnemonic devices for remembering essential things like the colors of the rainbow (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet).

    Some years ago I read the first 452 pages of the Oxford English Concise Dictionary, word by word, but then two weeks later I couldn’t remember the definition of a single word. But I’m sure all those definitions are there in my memory (my English did improve I think). I’ve heard one remembers everything one sees and experiences; the issues are with the retrieval of those memories.

    Anyway, what is most curious is that some time ago I used to wash my hands with lemon soap at the tap and then only seconds after feel uncertain whether I have washed my hands or not, and to be sure, wash them again. Sometimes I’d wash them probably three times before I left the bathroom, and by the time I’ve reached my room I was unsure whether I washed my hands or not, but I smelled them and they smelt of lemon soap and I knew I had washed them at least once. Mischievous memory. (I have since remedied this problem by using wet wipes instead of soap.) 🙂

    This is a rather long comment made even longer by this apologetic sentence. Thank you for taking the time to read.

    I tip my hat and wish you a long scientific life (may you never suffer any lab accidents that would endanger you).

    1. good phrase, mischievous memory! and it really is. Everything we experience is thought to be in our “memory”, but the issue is how well is it integrated with everything else in there, and how well we figure out how to access it. We all need to use props to remember a lot of what we need to. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts! I like your blog!

  33. Fantastic post, thank you. One of the reasons I started blogging was to help me memorise news stories/subjects I’ve found interesting.

  34. Interesting concept – “a furnished mind.” Thank you for this commentary on our minds in the digital age. I’m concerned about the “cheapness” of information in this era. Is more knowledge better when it flies past you at the speed of light. Indeed, how much IS retained? All interesting topics.

  35. As a librarian, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we access, store, and recall information. The process has changed so much from when I grew up (in the 90s). Looking things up in a book seems to be a thing of the past, and I miss that feeling of accomplishment that comes from finally an elusive answer.

    Fantastic post-you’ve given me a lot to think about (and hopefully, remember :P)

    1. So much change is happening in the course of just a few decades! Thanks for your thoughts. Librarians must see all facets of this! A librarian’s education much be changing dramatically as well.

  36. Great post! I am definitely guilty of occasionally checking my iPhone or the internet for answers to questions I sometimes already know just because I can find the answer more quickly.

  37. Okay, so in my class, there are about 5 people who copy and paste their homework off the internet. But it’ always the same five. The rest of learn stuff properly.

  38. mmm….the word creativity sparked my interest in your blog…then came memory followed by technology. As you said in one of your comments- (its just a tool). I see my 19month old exploring….trying to use everything as a tool to make sense of his environment. I see my 4year old playacting something he experienced during the day that impressed him. So I believe that play is an important part in creativity. Do you remember how you used to play. My father told me how they used to play(they had no television or computers) and it differs widely of how I used to play(I had limited access to television and computers)….I would like to teach my children first how to play and then they can play at a later stage with technology…..using it as a tool…talking about play- i think there are many memory games available, but not many people can find the ‘time’ to play with them.

    1. Having kids really makes all this hit home, doesn’t it?! I have an 8-month-old and a 3-year-old, and I am constantly thinking about how they interact with technology. Back in the day, I did play therapy as a child psychologist, so I really resonant with what you say about the value of play. Thanks for your thoughts!

  39. What’s hinted at here is basically available now in so far as this goes – check out which I use extensively to manage and marshal information across many topics.

    These types of tools are becoming more available and affordable so why not use them?

    Since everyone is unique and attaches varying weights to different pieces of information it’s these highly personal structures that will help organise and galvanize new ideas.

    The only real challenge that now exists is in ‘speed of input/access’ in so far as we can think much faster than we can manually input information and ideas into this type of ‘brain-like’ container. Typing? Yes I can touch type but OMFG it can be tortuous at times!

    The other point I wanted to make was this. If you agree that remembering something ‘short term’ takes energy/effort (e.g. a set of directions, appointment, to-do list) then isn’t this essentially wasted when you could have this capacity to dream, create and make new associations between ideas? This mental juggling of tasks adds to stress and noise which (imho) hugely reduces creativity – so cut it out! 😉

    Another book recommendation – ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman also strays very much into the underlying dynamic of how the brain actually works to deal with information. I’ve only just started going through it but you should definitely check it out.

    Last point? What else is a blog but a collection of memories? If we all strive to address the world in the same dynamic/open and fearless style that many of us blog in then surely.

    At some point I believe individuals come to a point where they have to chose whether to become creators or consumers. The first is active while the second is passive… Take all the tools and information – go and urgently create or drown in a sea of consumerist mediocrity.

    The internet/electronic memory ship is already sailing 😉

    1. Do you really think we should all just outsource our thoughts and memories to devices? I agree there is a place for this, especially with the enormous load of information we have to manage, but to do so without consideration of costs and benefits seems premature.

      Just to be clear, I agree with (and do it all the time) the idea that we should delegate a lot of the trivial stuff so that our minds have space/energy for more important things. But, with the brain, it’s highly likely that we’re talking about a “use it or lose it” situation, so we should make mindful choices about what we let go of and what we put effort into.

      Also, these programs might be “superior” in some ways, but what can compare to the miraculous capacities and potentials (that we might not even be aware of) of the human brain? To just board the electronic memory ship might mean we are missing an opportunity for a true evolution in our human capacities – our brains have to contend with and adapt to the new information culture. Outsourcing to devices just seems a way of not fully engaging with these changes.

      I think there is a real place for what you suggest, but that we need to THINK about all this and sort out the pros and cons of using our memory and cognitive functions less and/or in different ways. Thanks for your perspective! It’s nice to have a very different view.

      1. I’m pleased to report that I’ve already weighed up the pros/cons and really didn’t find any ‘cons’. If there’s a concern about somehow losing/compromising humanity from relying on a tool because it’s computer related then we’re truly lost 😉

        Creative thinking derives from making new/interesting connections between disparate concepts so anything which can help this process by making the invisible more visible is surely for the good

        The choice you are talking about is really whether we’re going to passively experience our own minds/thoughts/world or seek to know and govern ourselves.

        It might help characterise this discussion by me mentioning that I’ve spent a year now also meditating daily. I’ll admit this has had a far greater (positive) effect on my life and well-being than gathering the information I use to make decisions and run projects into a huge mind-map 😉

        If you REALLY want to evolve then go learn Vipasanna meditation which is all about seeing yourself, the world and others clearly… All the data/storage and devices in the world won’t help you if you’re still trapped in your own mind.

      2. Perhaps you might consider the possibility that the mindful approach to these issues is to hold off on drawing conclusions and cultivate an attitude of open inquiry. Each day we learn more about the brain and about how we as humans interact with all sorts of technology (not just the digital kind). I believe that we must continue to question rather than adopting new tools just because they are new.

        I am not a luddite, nor am I a technophile. I am not targeting information technology because it is computerized. Rather, I wonder about all the possible pros and cons of these types of technology because they are suddenly – in the scheme of things – ubiquitous and integrated into every aspect of our lives.

        As a scientist, I study the brain, thoughts, and emotions – particularly as they develop – so my interest is in ASKING QUESTIONS and not assuming that things are surely for the good (or the bad!). I’m interested in the possibilities, particularly for developing minds.

        I agree with you wholeheartedly about the benefits of meditation and other kinds of mindful practices. Thank you for your thoughts on these issues. Very interesting!

      3. Best quote ever… ‘The questions you ask of yourself define the quality of your life’ so completely agree that declaring a fixed allegiance can get in the way of this.

        I suppose my position is that of an early adopter. I’m not sure how you would draw conclusions without experimentation or adoption? Isn’t real experience required to truly answer a question – theory only gets you so far, right? At some point you have to ‘do’.

      4. 🙂 right. I agree, experience is so key here. I’m a new blogger, and I have to tell you, my experience of “doing” blogging has very much enriched and altered my view of blogging and other sorts of social media. And as you suggest, the more experience I have, the better my questions will become (I hope!) and the better I will be able to interpret the research once it is done.

  40. In education this decision is always in discussion. It’s often hard to determine what information needs to be in our human reference system- our brains and what skills are important to aid us in locating what we need. I don’t think it’s this cut and dried.What we have memorized and learned through our experiences can be a foundation for creative thinking or a deterrent if we can’t look beyond it. The important factor as I see it is encouraging them to try new things and not to worry about being wrong. Even my brightest students tend to want to rely on facts rather than using their knowledge as a springboard. We have much work to do if we are going to raise a generation of problem-solvers.

      1. Thanks, it really is a subject that needs discussion and exploration.I appreciate your generating this discussion. I found the other comments thought-provoking.

  41. I really agree! Great post.
    I recently finished memorizing an entire chapter (though a short chapter) from a book I like.
    Repeating it to myself and the whole memorizing process really helped me gain new creative insight into it.
    As a writer and artist, creativity and expression are very important to me, and no matter how rigid rote memory appears to be, it really has opened up a whole new way to be creative.

    Also, if you haven’t already read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” then I’m certain you’ll love it.

  42. I quite enjoyed your post, and found many of the commenters to have salient points as well.
    I would like to add that having a full, or well-furnished (as you put it) mind does not always mean it is a product of heavy or rote memorization. I have made a study (active if not particularly scientific) of what is known in Show Business as the ability to Ad Lib.

    People who have a propensity for the collection of trivia–in this case comedic trivia–are often labeled as master ad-libbers. In all but a very few cases I’ve studied, those people are simply pulling up quips from their storehouse of data, and not being particularly creative in the process. To be fair, people like Jonathan Winters, and his confessed protege, Robin Williams, do seem to go far beyond simply pulling up a pre-recorded bit. They do seem to create on the spot. Of course their “talent” might just be a higher level of what I’ve already described.

    Do you know someone who can identify a song within the first 3 or 4 bars? Somebody who can sing along with lyrics for every song within a certain musical era? Have you ever noticed that a person who can do that may not be so very strong in math, or language, or science?

    Memory is wild and crazy thing. It is wrong as often as it is right, it is shaded, colored, if you will, by past experience, culture, age, and much more.

    Does the “offloading” of rote memories to devices–devices that can be accessed anywhere and at any time make sense? Does clearing up the cobwebs give us more room to be creative? I don’t know.

    But I think that the people who are creative will be creative. I don’t think that all the tools, tips and tricks out there will really make a person more creative. But then, there is more to being creative than finding new ways to stack a dozen blocks. Sometimes you need to be able to think up new blocks, too.

    1. Thanks for these really interesting points. Perhaps creative people will just be creative no matter what because they find their own ways to do so – and it could of course be very different for each person. There’s no creativity magic bullet :).

  43. I am entering a Counseling Psychology PhD program this fall so this is right up my alley. Your blog is extremely well written and entertaining, as well as informative. You just earned yourself a new subscriber!

  44. This is so true – especially relying on other sources (like Internet) to remember things for us. I can’t even count how many times I’ve thought that to myself – that I don’t have to memorize something, as it’s so easily available on-line. Scary phenomenon, I really hope there is a way back and our creative minds are not yet lost…

    1. I think our creative minds are far from lost! I just believe that we have to make smart and mindful choices about how we engage with all these tools, which is of course all technology is…. thanks for your comment!

  45. One question that always has bothered me is: How much could someone readvance technology if it was all suddenly lost in an postapocatyptic type scenario? One friend of mine answered that he could advance back to the bronze age. But I really doubt it, The first priority would be to relearn how to obtain food, farm and raise animals. Most of us don’t even know the basic procedure to bake bread.

  46. “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.”
    This hits the nail on the head! Perhaps in our lifetimes we will see classes totally dedicated to information/memory allocation — the study and implementation of allocating the brain’s power to memorize and process.

  47. This is really intriguing– and it raises so many questions. But my big question for the the writer of this blog is, if technology is changing the way that we think and store information, what do you think the potential could be? How could our minds and our memories work after the next evolutionary jump? I don’t know which questions to ask! It’s a really captivating idea.

    1. It really is a challenging idea – I’m not sure where to start either! Another comment ( alluded to future training in which we learn how to allocate our memory, prioritize maybe. Perhaps we’ll just become extremely efficient and focused “rememberers.” Perhaps we will also start to use our memory mainly for those types of things that can’t be easily encoded in digital format – things like emotionally-evocative memories. Facts are easy to outsource to digital harware, but the full, rich human experience is very difficult to encode in anything other than our marvelous human brains. So if we focus on these types of memories, maybe they will become incredibly sophisticated and important to us – even more than now. Perhaps we’ll make a practice of remembering those special human moments with extreme detail and mindfulness, and we’ll become very very good at it. This could play into how we use our memories to fuel our creative potential.

      Just an idea off the top of my head. I’d love to think about that in detail in another blog post – or maybe someone else can :-). Thanks for such an interesting question!

  48. This is an idea I have been toying with lately as well, your comments on it excellent. I think that the worst part is that it becomes a self perpetuating cycle in that the more we trust or lean on ‘google’ or our devices to provide instant answers the less knowledge we internalize. This then leads us to rely on technology even more.

    1. Thanks! This is my instinct also about one of the possible outcomes. However, the older I get (ironically?) the less fatalistic I become. I think that many of us will right ourselves before it gets to the point of over-reliance. And I think there could be some interesting upsides as well. For example, these information storage tools are arguably critical in an age of information overload; moreover, by using them effectively, they might just bring us back to the pre-information overload baseline in terms of how we use our memory.

  49. Very interesting post. My mother-in-law is amazed at how my generation can pull out their smart phones and find the answer to almost any question within a matter of seconds. The way we access, store, and use information is completely different than it was 15-20 years ago. At that time, you had to take a trip to the library, use the card catalogue to find the appropriate publication, and then research.

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