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We’ve Forgotten How To Remember

Ever since we’ve had the tools to externalize knowledge, we’ve taken advantage. From writing on cave walls to printing books and saving files to our computers. While a sticky memory was critical in the past, now we can get by with a free mind provided we have our smart phones close by.

This shows up in studies—36% of Europeans said they looked up answers online, 24% then admitted they forgot the information after using it. Around one third of Brits don’t remember their own home phone number, and can’t remember the birthdays of 3 immediate family members; we now tend to remember where information is as opposed to the information itself; we can also, oddly enough, conflate our knowledge with that of Google, leaving us thinking that we know something when instead it’s the internet doing the remembering.… we’ve supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches—from the alphabet to the BlackBerry. These technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped make our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed how we think and how we use our brains. —Joshua Foer

Naturally many things we forget are unimportant. Having your phone remember numbers and your calendar store birthdays takes the cognitive strain off of you, which leaves your mind free to tackle more pressing concerns.

However, forgetting other types of information could become one of those pressing concerns. we learn information—that is, incorporate it into our existing mental structures, and it becomes meaningful—it becomes knowledge. —Diane Halpern

Memory is built through association. For you to remember something, you must link it to other information in memory. The more connections, the more stable the memory. A dense web of related memories forms a chunk, which is a handy memory trick your mind employs to compress meaningful information, allowing you to mentally work with more at a time.

[P.S. Find out how chunking might the secret to a powerful mind here.]

Nowadays we’re inundated with things jostling for our attention. Billboards, magazines, emails, phone applications sending us notifications at 1am. We consume more than ever before.

Daniel LevitinIn 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986–the equivalent of 175 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of 5 hours of television each day, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images. That’s not counting YouTube, which uploads 6,000 hours of video every hour. —Daniel Levitin

But consuming is only one part of remembering. If we don’t stop consuming and actually think about the information, then it’s in one ear and out the other. Worse, if we don’t make an effort to hang on to the information, there is nothing for new information to be linked with, and no coherent memory structures are ever formed.

The brain simply wasn’t designed to have so much information in one place. —Daniel Levitin

You need to remember what the word table is if you’re to understand “she tried to jump over the table and totally failed.” You don’t want to rely on your dictionary app every time you encounter table. Likewise, it’s going to be terribly inefficient to run an internet search every time you need to find the speed of light if you have any interest in physics.

You could of course get away with that, but there’s another issue. Your understanding of table also gives you an implicit understanding of what a dining room contains and how to prepare for dinner. It is connected in your mind to chair, cloth, plate, food, wood, glass, and maybe some specific memory of your friend trying in vein to high jump over one.

In other words, it is part of a web of related memories. If you need to do an internet search every time you need to know what a table is, then it is not a part of this web, and your conceptual understanding of dinner suffers. process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience. —Daniel Bor

The answer is simple but not easy when we’re now so used to staring at screens and multitasking—stop and think.

Take a break, give yourself time to contemplate the information. Consider how it applies to different situations, in a novel context. Ask the why’show’s, and what if’s. There are many tools that can aid learning, all of which require some conscious cognitive effort on your part.

Don’t be a mindless consumer, become a thinker.

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Published in Connecting the Dots


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