If I think back to my primary school education, learning things by rote was a big thing: From multiplication tables to learning poems by heart, memorizing stuff seemed to be the name of the game.

In high school it was all about irregular verbs and periodic tables. Sponging it up. Drilling it. And spilling it.

And even in University, more often than not – studying simply meant memorizing bigger and bigger quantities of data. Mentally archiving it. Retrieving it when prompted by written or spoken exams.

Uploading Our Memory To The Internet

A new study suggests that using the Internet changes the way our memory works:

when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.

In short: We might not remember that much anymore. But we do remember how to quickly access the information.

Does that mean that the Internet makes us stupid?

Or is the Internet rather becoming an extension of our brain, making biological memory a evolutionary obsolescence?

Brain Jogging & Wasted Thinking Power

A big argument for the “learning by rote” used in virtually all educational endeavours is that the actual data you learn by heart is irrelevant. You could drill the birth-dates of American baseball players or recite source-code in hexadecimal, for that matter.

Point being: Repetition trains your brain. It’s like a neuronal workout.

So, the real question is not really whether “learning by rote” is effective.

The question is rather what data to focus on.

And it seems that studies like the one quoted above shine a new light on this question.

If everything is online, we could store on our brain’s “hard-drive” only that which is of immediate practical value to us. Like the cloud-based net-book, performance could be improved by outsourcing everything else.

Or is the popular brain = computer equation only that: a broken metaphor?

Server-Farms And Peanut-Brains

Imagine for a moment you don’t have to remember anything, anymore.

Yes, I mean it. Let’s just format the whole thing! Just for the sake of the experiment – let’s flush it all…

From your mobile phone number (which you never dial yourself, anyway) to the the date when “Columbus sailed the blue…” delete everything from your brain but imagine you still have access to all of it through a connection outside your biological wiring in ever-expanding server-farms.

Would the brain freed from the weight of knowledge excel in creative thinking, cropping up with one novelty after the other?

Or would it shrivel up in the absence of biological memory training and turn us all into drooling fools?

One thing is for sure: It will make us completely dependent on that outside connection to the extent of not being able to survive without the link-up.

And this is the point where the thought experiment and your and my reality of today intersects. Point being, we are already more dependent on our gadgets than we’d like to admit and the trend continues towards more and more outsourcing.

As Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University, quoted in a recent recent blog post by Ed Yong points out:

It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.

Some will lament, others will celebrate this.

This is not the point.

How do you live with it? That’s the question.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, below.

 img: CC by Stefan Marks & CC by formatbrain

Brains In The Cloud: The New Memory

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