The Death of Long Term Memory

Computer brain.This fascinating article at Scientific American, about human and animal consciousness, contains the following passage:

In humans, the short-term storage of symbolic information—as when you enter an acquaintance’s phone number into your iPhone’s memory—is associated with conscious processing.

A few years ago, when I was first learning about memory, the example probably would have gone more like “your short term memory holds small amounts of information, like a phone number, while you rehearse it in your head until you have it memorized.”

The main difference between the examples is that the iPhone has replaced our own biological memory storage as the final resting place of long term memories. I think this points toward a more general trend, in which technology is taking over many of the functions that our brains carried out before. Why memorize a phone number when you can, at any time, just retrieve it on a screen with a few swipes of your finger? Why commit the times table to memory when a calculator is always close at hand?

Storing memories outside of our brains is nothing new. Scrawling something on paper is much the same. However, the ease with which we can store and retrieve these external memory banks is improving at an exponential rate. Today, a lot of the human race’s collective store of knowledge can be searched in fractions of a second with a few keystrokes in a search engine. Maybe tomorrow, our fingers won’t even be an intermediary step; a direct link between our minds and databases need not be science fiction. Google may not just be the future of computers, but the future of the human race.

As we continue to improve our access to information outside of our heads, I think there will be less emphasis on teaching people raw information, and more emphasis on teaching what to do with information. [self plug] Scientific research into topics like human creativity (which computers don’t seem to have mastered yet) and cognitive psychology will become increasingly important [/self plug], as will disciplines like philosophy and math, which deal purely with how to manipulate information into something useful. We should probably also keep Keanu Reeves around to make sure we haven’t slipped into The Matrix without realizing it.

Christof Koch (2009). Exploring Consciousness Through the Study of Bees Scientific American