Expanded Memory

In preliterate cultures, the great sagas and epics were necessarily communal creations committed to tribal memory and chanted under priestly supervision over generations. With the invention of the alphabet, authors no longer depended on communal memory but stored their work on stone, papyrus, or paper. Jason Epstein

More and more now I find myself turning to the Web when I can’t remember something. I don’t remember a person's name or the title of the book she wrote. But the Web remembers and then I remember too.

Sometimes what I am searching for drifts in on its own, usually when I am unprepared or doing something other than trying to recall it. And sometimes this occurs several days after memory failed me, when I’ve totally forgotten what it was that I was even trying to recall.

But I am impatient and have no interest in these “mind pops” and so more and more often I rely upon the Web. I suppose we’ve always depended on other resources to refresh our memories. Nevertheless I always, yes always, feel bad about this. Is my brain turning to mush? Is the dread disease finally consuming me?

So it was with considerable relief that I read Daniel Wegner’s article in the Times last Sunday (8/5/12) suggesting there’s nothing really wrong with checking the Web, that it isn’t a sign of mental deterioration. What good news; I won’t forget that.

He says we all have limited memories, “no one remembers everything.” We ask a friend about something we’ve forgotten. My friend knows everything about the subject I’ve forgotten. My wife asks me where she left her glasses. Since she asks me so often, I always keep track of where her glasses are.

The other night we were watching an old movie and I could not for the life of me remember the name of the actress. I asked her, if she did. She thought for a while and then said, “Emma something.” Immediately I replied, “Emma Thompson.” There we have it: communal memory on the couch.

Each time we draw upon the Web or another person, we only expand our memory. It isn’t that we are becoming overly dependent on these sources or becoming more forgetful. Rather it is an adaptive response to our limited memory capacity.

Wegner refers to this process as “transactive memory.” In introducing the idea he describes it as a “way to understand the group mind….each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally—and then we can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t. In this way we become part of a transactive memory system.”

Isn’t this an example of our increasingly specialized society? We don’t live in a preliterate society referred to by Epstein, where stories were communicated verbally and where it was necessary to rely upon communal memory and our own ability to remember what was spoken, if we were ever to remember anything.

We have all become a great cybermind. As long as we are connected to our machines through talk and keystrokes, we can all be part of the biggest, smartest mind ever. It is only we are trapped for a moment without our Internet link that we return to our own little personal minds, tumbling back to earth from our flotation devices in the crowd.

His essay was like a cathartic therapy session. A feeling of reassurance swept over me, my fear of relying on Goggle or someone else disappeared, and I no longer have to berate myself or feel bad after all about being part of the “great cybermind.”