Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Mobility, Metamemory and the Connected Second or Third Brain

Does having a library close to your home erode your brain's ability to remember?  Unlikely right?  But many people continue to believe that having information available nearby, such as in your pocket or purse does.  I have heard people speculate that access to Wikipedia and other personal cloud or internet content via smartphones must negatively impact memory?  That claim just does not make sense to me.

Today, I read an article by Clive Thompson titled, "Is Google Wrecking Our Memory."  In this article Thompson says the short answer to the question in his article title is no.  Seems about 30 years ago Harvard psychologists Daniel Wegner, Ralph Erber and Paula Raymond noticed humans use a memory process called "transactive memory" whereby we remember where to find answers in other people.  For example Wegner's team noticed spouses often divide up who remembers what.  The wife might remember everyone's birthdays, but the husband remembers what kind of work all the various family members do and where they live.  Combined, the couple has a great memory. Uncoupled, their memory is incomplete.

It turns out we are all pretty bad at memorizing details (unless we are passionate about something), but really good at memorizing where to find information.  As a result humans quickly come to recognize who knows what and where to find answers.  The end result is a group of friends or family members quickly recognize who in the group knows about certain things - Ralph knows about cars, Mary knows about geography, Claus knows the Bible, Susan knows computers, etc.  This recognition of where to find information is called "metamemory." You know where information is stored and can retrieve it quickly from your friend's brain.  This metamemory expands your memory to a group memory, or a network of memories.

Before computers, the cave men knew which cave contained the painted story of a great hunt.  As languages developed, people soon recognized who amongst them maintained specialized knowledge.  A village leader may have been the person who used their networking skills and metamemory to get things done.  They knew which member in the village knew how to solve a particular problem.

Today, we use our smartphones' access to Wikipedia as the painting on the cave wall.  In businesses we know our customer and sales information is kept in our CRM system.  We recognize where the information is stored.  Our metamemory has expanded from cave walls, to people, to books, to Wikipedia and our business solutions.  We continue to develop our metamemory, it is just not limited by geography or people today, or is it?  Where are Mary and Susan when you need them?
Kevin Benedict, Head Analyst for Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud (SMAC) Cognizant
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I am a mobility and SMAC analyst, consultant and writer. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.