OR: The Emergence of Referential Memory in the Google age
“Oh yeah, that reminds me of something I read, it was, what’s his name, during the 80’s, no, the 90’s. hmpf. Wait, I’ll google it”. How many times have you heard that? Felt that? Once a day? Once an hour? People are saying Google is ruining human knowledge. There’s constant talk about how the information age is changing, even harming, our brains. I believe by now it’s safe to say that the age of information not only is light-years away from the age of knowledge, but it also inherently moves it even farther away. As access to information becomes effortless, we no longer need to know things, but only how to find them. So what’s happening to our brains in the process?
What is Memory?
Traditionally, psychologists divide the human memory into two main types: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory refers to stuff we know but cannot quite point to how we know them or what it is to know them. The myth of the coca cola ads in the 60’s is a great example for that. Coca cola allegedly used what the psychologists call priming to raise awareness to their product. Embedding split second displays of a product into movies makes people think of it even though they couldn’t explain why as they wouldn’t remember seeing the images. But there’s no need to go to the extent of these subliminal messages. We are constantly swamped with massive amounts of information that we’re unaware of, yet that changes the way we perceive things. Whenever we read a newspaper, watch a movie or even talk to a friend, we’re presented with stereotypes and even prejudice that affects our judgment. Our brain is constantly being rewired with every stimulus we are exposed to, we can’t help it.
A different, more common type of implicit memory is procedural memory. Being the reason behind the coining of the phrase “It’s as easy as riding a bike”, procedural memory refers exactly to those types of actions and procedures that are engraved in our motor memories. These memories do not require active retrieval – i.e. remembering – but rather feel inherent in our very organs. Much like priming, tying a shoelace or driving a car do not necessarily come into one’s full awareness.
Explicit memory, on the other hand, refers to those memories whose retrieval is entirely conscious by nature. Think of any historical fact you’ve once studied and are trying to remember. A story your grandma told you as a kid or the name of a person you had just run into. These are all stuff that are stored in your brain and in order to retrieve them you use your explicit memory.
Enter a New Kind of Memory
Until recently, this historical division of explicit and implicit memory seemed to pretty much capture what was going on in our brains. These days, it seems to be out of date. As we are always online, we’ve become accustomed to use Google as an extension to our own explicit memory. Instead of only searching our brains for facts, we have an infinitely growing database of facts being indexed by Google at our immediate disposal. Mobile web or laptop, home, work or on-the-go, Google is always at our fingertips. And how do we search this enormous memory-base? As I see it, we do so using our procedural memory. Think of how you Google things – there’s usually a certain code behind what you’re looking for that you have to decipher, extract the keywords out of, and search for. Say I was looking for a talk I saw by someone whose name I can’t remember, but I can remember he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who spoke sometime this year about gaming and design. All I had to do was search for exactly that, and the 3rd result I got was Jesse Schell’s amazing talk about gamifying life. Now, if I track back my actions I notice that this extraction of keywords and Google search came to me automatically. I didn’t have to contemplate but just search. Worst case scenario would be I see something weird in the results page and search again. Searching became automatic, much like riding a bike. So we’re using our procedural memory to search our augmented, Google based, explicit memory. And this is what I call Referential Memory. Much like a reference in a book, our brain holds an internal reference that points us to external content, in this case – web content. Referential memory is simply using our procedural memory to extract facts from our Google augmented explicit memories.
What next, you ask? How will referential memory change us as individuals? How will it change human kind? Well, whether be it a worrying decline in creativity, or the rise of collective intelligence, the implications are immense and can potentially altar society, people, intelligence – the world as we know it. But that’s a whole different story. For now, I’m merely hoping for some hard rock brain science type of evidence that referential memory actually exists and is not a fiction of my imaginative mind.