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The memory game March 14, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, communication, internet, language, learn, life, science, technology.
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working memoryI experienced a mind slip the other day. During a casual conversation with another attendee at a recent event, I learned that she and I had a mutual acquaintance. I asked her name, checked the spelling, then said her full name again to make sure I had remembered it correctly. Then we spoke about other subjects for a few minutes, and I left the meeting. As I walked away, I searched my memory and her name had completely slipped my mind.

My friends would laugh and say that I just had a senior moment, but I don’t think it’s a sign of early dementia. And I did all the “right” things except actually write down the woman’s name: I said her full name twice, I looked at her face, and I was focusing fully on the conversation. I know how easy it is to not remember what’s being said to me when my mind is somewhere else (just ask my partner!), but how could this detail slip away so quickly?

I wonder if the problem is with my short-term memory. When I was growing up, my mother drilled us so much on the details of our day — who we talked to, what we learned in school, etc — that I learned to be good at observing and remembering detail. And then there was that memory game we always played at parties where someone would bring out a tray of household items and everyone would study it for five minutes, then it would disappear again and we had to list every item. That was one of my mother’s favourite games.

But my memory is getting a lot less exercise these days. So much of the short-term function is now filled by machines: my database of names, phone numbers, tasks and appointments is synced between my cellphone and my computers at work and home. I don’t have to remember information any more; I just have to look it up.

A recent study of 3,000 school children in Great Britain discovered a loss in “working memory” in 10% of the pupils. Working memory involves such things as remembering verbal instructions, new names or telephone numbers. The process of remembering things for a short period of time is fundamental to our experience of the world and is linked to many higher brain functions.

The researchers said that teachers rarely identify this problem, tending to label pupils as being unmotivated daydreamers. Yet if the finding of 10% of children having the problem held true for all children, then almost 500,000 in primary education alone would be affected.

I don’t know if the researchers identified a cause, but it makes me wonder whether technology is partly to blame. During a discussion this week on CBC radio about how technology has changed the way we remember, one of the interviewees was describing how he is constantly “googling” information during conversations with his friends. There’s no reason to remember who starred in that film, or the location of that hip restaurant, because all that information is as close as the nearest internet connection.

If we don’t need to remember this kind of information, is it possible that we will forget how to store and recall facts?

My biggest memory issue — aside from remembering peoples’ names — is remembering passwords. There are so many sites that require passwords, and I don’t remember which ones I use where.

All I know is that I’ve been relying on Firefox to remember for me, but I’ve heard enough about identity theft to wonder whether that’s a good idea. How many passwords can anyone reasonably remember? I can only think of five; the others are lost in memory.

At least I don’t work in one of those offices where the network password is changed every month. I’d have to write it down.

dilbert cartoon

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Related Links:
BBC: “Memory issue hits 10% of pupils”
USA Today: “This is the Google side of your brain”
Wired: “Your outboard brain knows all”
Computers, memory and thought
The Neurological Scratchpad: Looking into Working Memory



1. lavenderbay - March 17, 2008

I had a great idea for a comment, but forgot to write it down.

Despite many non-verbal items — traffic lights, for example, I think ours is essentially a non-oral culture, and has been since the printing press was invented. Were I a teacher, I would be much more worried about the pupils with reading difficulties than those who read well but couldn’t recite Hamlet’s Soliloquy for all the gold in Denmark.

2. Shaw - March 17, 2008

You’ve reminded me of a poem by Li-Young Lee: “This Room and Everything in It.” Coupling the themes of love and loss in the poem is attention to a particular mnemonic technique, the process of walking through a series of rooms, each with its own distinct architecture, while memorizing different parts of a speech. The idea is that when the speaker is finally in front of his or her audience, he or she mentally walks back through the different rooms to trigger the details of the various parts of the speech. One could say that this technique poses the additional difficulty of having to remember not one but two sets of details, but it doesn’t lack for sensuousness.

3. eyegillian - March 17, 2008

Thanks for the reference to the Li-Young Lee poem, Shaw — I found it on the internet and it is indeed beautiful the way he uses the “art of memory” to try to anchor a moment in time… and the evaporation of the idea, the inability to hold the thought still — in the same way, I can never really remember all the details of someone’s face, no matter how hard I try, or how well I once knew it.

4. eyegillian - March 17, 2008

And thank you, Lavenderbay, for your comment. I agree that ours is no longer an oral culture, but I do believe that we need to retain the ability to hold and weigh information in our minds — and if we can’t remember enough information to be able to stop and ponder, then we will not be able to process anything that we read.

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