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Is Memory Still Important?


Dr. Michael

Hanchett Hanson

At this stage of the information revolution, can we finally stop worrying about memory? We have managed to outsource factual recall to machines that are far superior to our faulty neurons. In the past knowing things was important. We needed to know the history of our country, the details of the products we were selling or servicing, or the location and hours of the good restaurants in our neighborhood.

Now, so the argument goes, our relation to facts has changed. Accessing and evaluating information is important, but knowing things is not a pressing 21st century concern. We can stop worrying about memory and focus on developing thinking skills – logic, critical thinking, creativity and so on.

In our guts many of us know that this line of thinking is wrong. It’s hard to say why, though. I suspect that most people value their own recall of facts in the course of job interviews, political discussions, sales presentations, work meetings, first dates and networking events. But every day we also use search engines to look up what we don’t know. We use them a lot. In effect, have we not outsourced our memory?

I think certain perspectives in psychology can help us here. My mentor, Howard Gruber, was a protégé of the famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Gruber applied Piaget’s principles of systemic cognitive development to the study of one of today’s acclaimed thinking skills: creativity. I have since integrated Gruber’s work with more recent sociocultural and distributed cognition theories. From this developmental, systems perspective, the Internet is like reference books, pamphlets, cafes and salons of the past.

Today, we study famous people’s notebooks, not because the notes listed facts that the thinker tended to forget, but because the notebooks were part of the persons’ thinking process. The Internet is part of our thinking system. It has changed the speed and breadth of access to information, potentially exposing us to authoritative data, wacko ideas and everything in between in a click. The Internet has also changed the depth of information readily available on many topics. These are no small matters, but they do not mean that we can forget knowing facts in favor of abstract thinking skills. On the contrary, having these powerful technologies as part of the systems in which we think, ups the ante.

Consider these three reasons to continue to develop personal memory:

To think at all, we have to think about things.

We cannot be critical, logical or creative in a vacuum. I teach theories of creative development and research methods to graduate students at a leading education school. One of the long-term controversies in that field has been whether any given person’s creativity is specific to a type of work (painting, sculpture, cooking, poetry, philosophy, etc.) or is a general trait that the person can apply anywhere. Increasingly the research has shown that creative thinking is domain specific and relies on experience and knowledge. You have to know things to be creative, critical or logical.

Humans are social animals, and we like to explore our worlds together. A key way that we connect to one another is by sharing facts about our worlds.

In other words, we think through social interactions, and we are very sensitive to technologies that seem to get in the way. There are few things more infuriating than a customer service representative giving a stock reply, read off a screen, instead of relating directly to the facts of your situation.

The same, by the way, is true of a bad lecture – it’s stiff and over prepared. It is obviously the recitation of a written piece, and, appropriately, students almost always feel compelled to bury themselves in their notes, returning the information to its original form. Good lectures are structured but include spontaneity in sharing the facts. Even if the students say nothing, they are seldom buried in their notebooks. They join the professor who is obviously thinking while speaking.

Finally, the technological components of our expanded memory systems, like the Internet, require that we know more – not less – to interact with them effectively or efficiently.

As is sometimes said of money, it takes knowledge to build knowledge. The search engine, customer service knowledge base, customer management system or just-in-time educational resource have become parts of our thinking system. Thinking occurs through interaction of the system components, whether those components are the Internet, a notebook, an encyclopedia, or a brush and canvas.

For rich interactions in these systems the person has to be up to the job. Powerful databases call, not for naïve users who do not know anything about the topics of concern, but for even more powerful minds with more knowledge than ever. A person searching for information on a topic that she knows nothing about may be satisfied with the first answer in the search results. She is not well equipped to search out nuances or evaluate conflicting results.

Knowing a modicum of information on the subject will allow her to search with more precision and evaluate better. In other words, she has some base of knowledge into which she can integrate the new information. If she knows a lot, she is in a position to target searches precisely, confirm details of information, appreciate nuances of the results and recognize mistakes or biases. She can interact with the information technology closer in ways that use its potential.  

In short, we have to keep learning things. Facts still matter, and we need to remember them. Electronic technologies make everything more powerful but also more challenging to use effectively. As educators and trainers we cannot take the easy way out, pretending that we can teach thinking skills without lots and lots of facts or by replacing learning with knowledge bases.

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