CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Columns

September 27, 2013

Is Google wrecking our memory?

(Continued)

The exception is when you're obsessed with a subject. If you're deeply into something — football, the Civil War, Pokémon — then you're usually great at hoovering up and retaining details. When you're an expert in a subject, you can retain new factoids on your favorite topic easily. This only works for the subjects you're truly passionate about, though. Baseball fans can reel off stats for their favorite players, then space out on their own birthday.

So humanity has always relied on coping devices to handle the details for us. We've long stored knowledge in books, paper, Post-it notes.

But when it comes to quickly retrieving information on the fly, all day long, quickly? We don't rely on documents for the details as much as you'd think. No, we rely on something much more immediate: other people.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner — and his colleagues Ralph Erber and Paula Raymond — first began to systematically explore "transactive memory" back in the '80s. Wegner noticed that spouses often divide up memory tasks. The husband knows the in-laws' birthdays and where the spare light bulbs are kept; the wife knows the bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo. If you ask the husband for his bank account number, he'll shrug. If you ask the wife for her sister-in-law's birthday, she can never remember it. Together, they know a lot. Separately, less so.

Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good "metamemory." We're aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we're good at intuiting the memory abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you discover that while you're terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they're great at it. They're passionate about subject X; you're passionate about subject Y. So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one's partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to notepads and encyclopedias, because we're much quicker to query: Just yell a fuzzily phrased question across to the next cubicle (where do we keep the thing that we use for that thing?) and you'll get an answer in seconds. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter.

Text Only
Columns
  • COMMENTARY: A break from the campaign rhetoric

    The collective sigh of relief felt throughout Cullman Wednesday morning signaled the end of another primary political season the previous night. As Wednesday’s Times headline told us, it was a clean sweep.

    July 21, 2014

  • Harris Coleman COMMENTARY: Billy Coleman, a true statesman

    King Solomon said, “Pride will ruin people, but those who are humble will be honored.” He also said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Billy Coleman, the past elected superintendent of Cullman County Schools, is the living example of these wise statements of truth.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • COMMENTARY: Twisty road back to Cullman

    The young journalist who was somewhat listening to the elder newspaperman on the other side of the desk didn’t have a clue.

    July 19, 2014

  • Commentary: Why your Facebook friends are so gullible

    These stories aren't real. They're the work of the New Yorker's not-particularly-funny online satirist Andy Borowitz, but many people, not just your gullible Facebook friends, invariably believe them. Sometimes the official state news agencies of global superpowers believe them.

    March 19, 2014

  • OPINION: Who belongs in the delivery room?

    Should a father be allowed in the delivery room for the birth of his child, over the mother's objections? A New Jersey judge said no last November, in a ruling that was released in writing earlier this week.

    March 13, 2014

  • SLATE COMMENTARY: Should Detroit be allowed to issue its own visas to immigrants?

    Under the plan, immigrants coming to the U.S. under visas aimed at those with "advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in science, business or the arts" would be "required to live and work in Detroit, a city that has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s."

    January 29, 2014

  • COMMENTARY: Rules for babies in restaurants

    "Maybe Don't Bring Your Baby to a 3-Star Restaurant," Jezebel suggests, in response to a kerfuffle over a Chicago couple bringing their 8-month-old to the ultraexclusive restaurant Alinea because their babysitter canceled.

    January 17, 2014

  • WORKOUT-WEAR2.jpg COMMENTARY: Workout Wear Friday? No sweat, boss!

    People in fitness gear are more likely to exercise — or at least to think about it. So let's get everyone in comfortable, moisture-wicking outfits once a week to demonstrate our commitment to physical activity.

    January 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • The Undead and the Unborn

    In this season of ghosts and ghouls, we seem to respect the undead more than the unborn. How unfortunate. Witness the popularity of television programs featuring blood sucking vampires and walking corpses, while in Texas, a new provision making it difficult for women to get an abortion is immensely unpopular. How unbelievable.

    November 28, 2013

  • Google Is Google wrecking our memory?

    Is the Internet ruining our ability to remember facts? If you've ever lunged for your smartphone during a bar argument, then you've no doubt felt the nagging fear that your in-brain memory is slowly draining away.

    September 27, 2013 1 Photo