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


7 thoughts on “The Death of Long Term Memory

  1. This is definetly the trend, but as you mention, computers are not creative. We still create, and learning to re-create with existing knowledge requires a kind of learning that can’t simply be stored on a hard drive…yet

    As human beings, we also experience the process of learning. Computers are just barely starting to learn from us, but they do not remember when they didn’t know the information.

    A computer also has no body. Each of our cells has an kind of memory. A computer cannot store the information that it takes for a human being to play a classical piece of music for piano. It takes a great deal of practice to move our fingers and maintain the posture required to make good music. The computer may be able to store the sounds and repeat them with the click of a mouse button, but it is far less impressive to hear music than it is to see it played live.

  2. But…doesn’t creativity require rearranging things or processes you know (memories, usually) in new ways? and if the memories are out there in the ether, then it slows down retrieval to the point that may not matter, the spontaneous rearranging of information can’t happen. For example, if a person has a word retrieval deficit, reading comprehension is compromised because it takes longer to place the word– its semantic, phonological, lexical properties– and by the time he finishes the sentence, short term memory has exhausted and he doesn’t remember what the sentence was about . . . I find it easier to think about things I know about than ask a question, find the answer, and then manipulate it. Might not even know the question, without some kind of inhouse (i.e. brain) memory of at least having known something about it, that it is something that exists. Relying on external memory sources would be like being at the bottom of the learning curve. Of course, it’s ok for phone numbers.

    We remember that we can retrieve, say, phone numbers: it’s embedded in a physical routine, we have visual cues: we know that we know it. So of course there is conscious processing involved in putting it into the iPhone memory: we are keying the numbers in but also creating a tag or something that says: I know this, here’s how to retrieve it.

    I have not studied creativity. But I think much of what we know is not conscious knowledge, especially if it is not verbal, and so is largely unlabelable and not retrieved in the same way as verbalizable memories. But we do know it and remember it, and call it up in our creative everyday maneuvers, maybe unconsciously. It might show up more as a process or relationship than a product or thing. This may be obvious and studied, or even be an 18th century idea long dismissed for all I know.

    I think only a tiny bit of longterm memory is used for stuff like series of digits that have no intrinsic meaning.

  3. arhageman: Yeah, that’s all currently true. But I see no reason why computers can’t, someday, achieve these things. The piano example is a good one; you’d think it would currently be pretty easy to get a computer to recreate a concert experience, even modeling the subtle semi-random variations that occur due to human error and creativity. I think actually writing a (good) song is a long ways off, though.

    Mary: Good points. For iPhones and external computers, yeah, they’re only used for a subset of the types of memories we store away.

    I’ve studied creativity a bit, and its link with intuition. Indeed, much of the creative process is unconscious; ideas “just come to me,” according to many eminent creators (and most of our personal experiences). Information stored on computers has to be accessed consciously, so yeah, it can’t play much of a role in creativity (although I like your “tag” idea). But if/when digital memories can be stored and accessed directly, merging with the conscious and subconscious processes in our brains, all bets are off.

  4. Mike: I’ve got a recognized severe disability which impairs my memory (among other things). I can’t comment on using an iPod, because ODSP doesn’t support the purchase of assistive devices for me (the way it would if I had a physical disability) and it’ll be a few more years before I can salt that much away. But I do lug my laptop with me everywhere I go. That’s because the technology makes a huge difference, not only in my ability to function but in my emotional health as well.

    Mary: I may not be able to remember what I want to about a newspaper article that I read and understood perfectly just a few days ago, but my reading comprehension is excellent. No problem recognizing words the second I see them on the written page. I cannot remember more than a few phone numbers. So I’m having a bit of trouble agreeing with your comment. Except for the “bottom of the learning curve” bit. For people like me (I’ve no idea how many of us there may be, only that the education system does a lousy job of detection), we may be at the challenged end of the learning curve, but external memory holds great promise. Difficulty accessing it is at least better than not being able to access the information at all.

  5. Thanks for sharing that, Greg. Making up for mental disabilities is another great example of how technology has improved, and will continue to improve, human life. It’s not difficult to imagine a future where a faulty memory can be corrected with a few implants or software updates, much like glasses correct faulty eyesight.

  6. Hey — that is a cool figure of the brain/motherboard… I wonder if you borrowed it from somewhere or drawn yourself… would you mind to share it? (want to use in my upcoming phd dissertation defense ;))
    otherwise I guess I will have to gimp it myself?

    thanks in advance

  7. Pingback: Automata For The People

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