Do you remember the password to your Facebook account? How about your email, Twitter, Spotify, Amazon, online banking, Instagram, WordPress, and LinkedIn accounts? Can you recall the names of all your Facebook “friends” and many other acquaintances, along with all the important birthdays throughout the year? Your post code, cell phone number, home number, tax number, ID number, passport number, credit card pin number, Apple ID, the code to unlock your phone, and password to unlock your computer?
This is a lot to remember. What’s more, words and numbers are not things the brain is designed to remember all that well. When it comes to memory, it prefers more feeling, more experience. Your memory for song melodies far outweighs your memory of phone numbers; your memory of faces dwarfs your memory for names; and your recollection of your first date, first day of school, or that time you messed up a speech and felt embarrassed, towers over your recollection of the first time you tried to do calculus.
Yet we are tasked with remembering these decidedly unmemorable items. We don’t want to forget someones name or have to call the bank because we can’t remember our login details. Failing to memorize these things hinders our ability to function efficiently out in the world today, slowing us down at every turn.
I shiver thinking of how much of my brain is filled with mundane digits. I would prefer it be filled with knowledge of value, of experience and understanding—things that are themselves interesting. Making that a reality requires finding another way to store all of the boring stuff, and as I’m sure we all know, that is becoming possible.
I use my phone and computer to remember most of it. Instead of filling my brain with all the clutter, I just rely on a system that presents the right information at the right time. Instead of remembering locations I store them in Google Maps; my calendar and Facebook alert me to important birthdays; if I need the password to my email account I find that “secret” little file where I keep my passwords.
My mind is tasked with a short list of processes at most, a method to extract what I need when I need it from that large pool of information. In this way I’m able to expend my mental capacities doing and thinking things of greater value.
“We tend to be economical in terms of how we use our brain, so if you know you don’t have to memorize the directions to a certain place because you have a GPS in your car, you’re not going to bother with that. You’re going to use your mind to remember other kinds of information.”
This is a catch-22 situation, however. As all of this information now lies within my electronic devices, I am severely reliant on them. I can hardly get anything done without having to turn to my phone or laptop. I’ve tasked my computer with remembering all of the annoyingly necessary details about my life, but now it has become annoyingly necessary.
This relationship runs deeper. I am self-studying neuroscience, and keep all my notes on my computer. Think about that—am I storing the note on the computer so I don’t have to remember them? Or because I think that making the notes will help me remember them? It is reassuring knowing I have information framed in my own perspective stored securely in the cloud, but does knowing it’s there undermine my own memory of it?
To be totally honest with you, sometimes I even turn straight to Google to find the answer to something. And I don’t make a note of it. I know, what am I thinking? How do I expect to remember something with such a meager amount of effort? I can barely remember a phone number after repeating it a hundred times, is a quick web search that much more effective?
My computer and the internet are taking on more and more aspects of life that were usually reserved for my brain. Does my memory exist both in neurons and in hard drives? Does thought take place in my frontal lobes and also through Google?
These questions have been on my mind for a while now. My search for answers has been fruitful, confusing, and disconcerting. It’s also taken me much further than simple memory correlations and into the issue of information overload and media consumption, the frightening field of merging internet and mind, and the security of our data/mind in the future.
Check out the Digital Brain series.