According to recent research, we're remembering fewer and fewer basic facts these days. And blame it on technological advances, the chips that store facts for us.
This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal information. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.
AdvertisementThat reflexive gesture — reaching into your pocket for the answer — tells the story in a nutshell. Mobile phones can store 500 numbers in their memory, so why would you bother trying to cram the same info into your own memory? Younger Americans today are the first generation to grow up with go-everywhere gadgets and services that exist specifically to remember things so that we don't have to: BlackBerrys, phones, thumb drives, Gmail.
When it comes to cultural trivia — celebrity names, song lyrics — I've almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online, says Clive Thompson , writing in the Wired Magazine.
"In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.
"My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us."
You could argue that by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely "human" tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming. What's more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking.
The chips can help us recall we ourselves wrote long ago and we might have forgotten since. But does an overreliance on machine memory shut down other important ways of understanding the world is the question.
There's another type of intelligence that comes not from rapid-fire pattern recognition but from slowly ingesting and retaining a lifetime's worth of facts. You read about the discoveries of Madame Curie and the history of the countries bordering Iraq. You read War and Peace. Then you let it all ferment in the back of your mind for decades, until, bang, it suddenly coalesces into a brilliant insight.
We've come to think of human intelligence as being like an Intel processor, able to quickly analyze data and spot patterns. Still there's just as much value in the ability to marinate in the seemingly trivial.
In any case the organic brain must contain vast stores of knowledge for enriched life, whatever the useful role played by computers or handsets.
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