What Nick Carr (maybe) Misses About Memory and Integration

What Nick Carr (maybe) Misses About Memory and Integration

Nick Carr on the recent Science article on the effect of Google on memory:

If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?

I suppose the thing that occurs to me is that there’s two sides to this question of storage. The first is that, yes, to the extent we know something is easily retrievable, we may spend less effort in trying to integrate it. I remember reading an article once about professors who announced that lecture PowerPoints would be available after class (after having lectured for years without sharing the lecture) — the result was not an increase in student test scores, but a dramatic drop. Students stopped trying to actively process presented material and make mental connections while listening. And ultimately, this hurt student development.

I think though there is another side to the issue — to the extent we are accessing external knowledge, someone has to externalize it, right? And the process of externalizing information is also a powerful form of integration.

So in other words if we are Googling more but also microblogging more, things could (perhaps) move to balance out. The person that agonizes over how to capture a speakers’ thought in 140 characters may be going through as rigorous a process of consolidation and integration as the person who is try to remember what the speaker is saying.

I don’t know that, of course, any more than Nick knows for sure the patterns on display in the Science article will lead to the effects he fears — but it’s worth keeping somewhat of a larger focus, looking at the overall impact a set of behaviors has on these processes rather than just one behavior in isolation.


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