Without looking at your phone, how many numbers do you know by heart? What about your calendar commitments a week from now? Off-loading these bits of information to our devices is convenient, but has it changed our brains, or the way we understand and store memories?
That’s what cognitive scientist Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University, wants to find out. He’s researched whether technology is erasing our memories and wrote about it in his book, Memory and Technology: How We Use Information in the Brain and the World. We spoke to him about how 21st century habits affect our brain and why many researchers have been “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to this subject. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Dr. Finley, how did you first become interested in human learning and memory?
As a college senior at UCLA I took a class on human learning and memory, and halfway through the course I was amazed to realize that the professor’s name was the same as the author of many of the classic journal articles we were reading: Dr. Robert A. Bjork. From him I learned that memory is all that we are, but memory is not necessarily reality. I also learned the joy of carefully crafting clever research to chip away at the mysteries of the mind.
Is memory and technology a growing field?
We humans have always been the species that extends itself into the environment, making and using tools to augment or event supplant our own abilities. But sadly, mainstream psychology research has long been asleep at the wheel with regard to studying how humans use technology to support everyday cognition. With a handful of early exceptions, hardly any psychologists have done any research on the interplay between technology (external memory, stored outside your brain) and human memory (internal memory, stored inside your brain). In my opinion, this incredibly obvious and important topic has just fallen through the cracks between adjacent fields of research, including psychology, human factors, philosophy of mind, anthropology, library and information science, personal information management and so on.
(Dr. Jason R. Finley)
Tell us about your own study. How does technology affect our memory?
When Dr. Farah Naaz and I were post-doctoral researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, a powerhouse of memory research, we ran a large online survey, using Google Forms and recruiting 476 participants from Mechanical Turk, asking people about how they use technology for memory purposes.
Over the course of your career you’ve received funding from Microsoft Research and NEH, but this study was crowdfunded, right?
Yes, that’s because our idea didn’t fit in the funded research plans of the professors we worked for, so we had to get creative, via crowdfunding on Experiment.com and with the help of the SciFund Challenge.
What did you find out in the course of your research?
We found a growing symbiosis between internal and external memory. Some people are concerned about relying on external memory too much, or losing internal memory abilities. Many others see it as an enhancement, allowing them to strategically distribute their memory efforts between their brains and their environments, and enabling them to do more both intellectually and socially.
Explain the difference between external and internal memory.
To put it broadly, external memory is augmenting internal memory for episodic purposes (i.e. specific episodes: first kiss, what you ate for lunch yesterday), and supplanting internal memory for semantic (i.e. passwords, trivia) and prospective (i.e. remembering to do something in the future – prompts, alarms, calendar entries) purposes.
Did your participants report any shifting patterns of behavior in these memory types?
One thing we did find in our survey was people reporting that external memory allowed them to devote less time and energy to remembering some things (e.g., appointments, phone numbers). Some said that they’ve been able to use their brains for more creative and big-picture purposes, which is something we’re still better at than machines. In that way I think we are using our brains more appropriately. There is more knowledge available to us now than ever before in human history, so it makes sense that we would be learning how to use our brains in ways that are different from how, say, Socrates did.
That’s interesting. So, when people bemoan tech is ruining our memories, that’s not exactly true.
What we can say is that technology is making memory different. We are offloading semantic and prospective information onto external memory, and we are using external memory to augment episodic internal memory.
So creating more space in our brains?
The human brain doesn’t fill up and run out of space like a hard drive; the capacity of human long-term memory is essentially unlimited. Rather, counterintuitively, the more knowledge you gain, the better your ability to learn even more, and that information is distributed as patterns across a vast network of neurons all over the cerebral cortex.
Is there evidence to suggest we now think in ‘keywords’?
That’s a very interesting question. No research has been done yet that I know of, but it does seem plausible, to the extent that we’re shaping our thoughts to be compatible with how our external memories are organized. Sometimes knowing the right keyword to use in a computer search makes all the difference. But this is also why I encourage students to use multiple synonyms when saving files for easier retrieval later.
Technology gives us the ability to store memories for future generations. Can you speak about this?
Yes. I just taught a new class I made called “Memory and the Human Experience” and this is an issue we covered. Digital legacy is a new and growing issue for humanity. When your body dies, all of the memories in your brain die too. But what happens to all of your external memories (diaries, essays, photos, emails, texts, social media posts, browser history, game saves, etc.)? This is worth thinking through ahead of time. To many of us, our memories may be more valuable than our material possessions. And there’s also the perspective of collective memory. So much information about our everyday existences is being recorded now, and that could be passed into the future for posterity. Think of the value to future anthropologists to have insights into the thoughts and feelings of people that lived in the 21st century.
How do you think memory retention and learning will change as we transition from handheld devices to wearables and then to intangibles, like AR and insideables?
Wearables make external memory capture more passive, so there’s less of a trade-off between capturing versus experiencing the moment. That is a good thing. There has been research showing that people, unsurprisingly, put less effort into memorizing material for a test when they expect to have an external record of the material when needed. But a broader open question is whether our very ability to internally memorize new information will atrophy with disuse in the long term. As the technology of external memory becomes more closely integrated with our bodies and especially our nervous system, it will be easier to rely on it instead of our biological memory. As you pointed out in another article, we’re all cyborgs already.
Most kind, thanks for the plug. In your book, you quote Proust: ‘The greater part of our memory exists outside us.’
Proust explored the subjective experience of memory, and how it connects us to who we used to be, in beautifully expressive ways that complement what science can tell us. In that quote, Proust was referring to the power of environmental cues to unlock troves of memory in our own brains. Such reminding is indeed one way that external memory interacts with internal memory. But I co-opted Proust’s words to imply a greater meaning: not just that cues to memory exist outside us, but that memories themselves can exist outside us too.
As corporations shrink, institutional memory becomes lost. I interviewed the team at 8i, who are building holograms for international training programs to ‘store’ what’s known even when the people recorded are gone.
Wow, that sounds like an exciting idea. If we can clearly delineate all of an outgoing team member’s institutionally relevant knowledge, and offload that onto some kind of external memory, that would be great. A challenge is that so much institutional knowledge is implicit, and it’s hard to know what we know that other people don’t.
With the rise in AI assistants, are we not just offloading cognition onto the environment, but also training amanuensis who can help us remember (what we will not) as we age?
As we develop AI that has some agency and can to some extent understand what the human user does and doesn’t know, or is likely to forget, then yes, that would be an instance of external memory that could act as a transactive partner. I think there could very well be potential for an AI to help a person with declining memory ability, especially if the AI has been with that person for a long time. However, the history of AI has shown that it’s really hard to make them for anything but the most specific purposes. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it always seems to take much longer than we think.
Good point. Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ll be speaking at the conference of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in Cape Cod, scheduled for June 6-9 about my work to date.