Transactive Memory Applies Technology to Free Up Your Mind

NEWS ANALYSIS: Google, Microsoft and Facebook, among other companies, are building databases with the promised goal of freeing our minds by serving as our collective memories.

Transactive Memory

Day Planner-style organizers became a thing when I was in college. This was just a few years before “Smart Wizards” hit and long before Personal Digital Assistants and smartphones emerged as how people kept track of their contacts, to-do lists and calendars.

If you’re under the age of 30, here’s what an organizer looks like.

One of my professors (who was a woman in her 70s) wagged her finger at the class and said: “throw away your organizers.”

Her point was that you should memorize all your contacts’ phone numbers, birthdays, addresses, appointments, to-do items and all the rest. That sounds like crazy talk now, but at the time that’s something many people actually did.

Her point was that if you rely on an external system for remembering things, your mind would turn to mush and you would lose the capacity to remember such things.

I ignored her advice. But I remembered her reason for it this week when I learned about something called transactive memory.

Transactive memory is when groups share the remembering of things. For example, within a family, when mom is better than everyone else at remembering family birthdays, dad is better at remembering phone numbers and junior is best at remembering events.

And because of this, each family member tries less hard to remember the information they’re not best at and works harder to remember their specialty information, essentially distributing the load amongst themselves.

The result is that the task of remembering things is distributed. So when junior needs to recall someone’s birthday, he doesn’t try to remember. He instead tries to remember where mom is so he can ask.

People in my social networks are talking about transactive memory because of a paper being discussed in tech circles about a study that determined that the smartphones and Google and other sites degrade our memory precisely through this mechanism. Google doesn’t publish knowledge, for the most part, but makes those who do instantly accessible. So it’s like the whole world is our transactive memory family.

More to the point, the study looked at what the impulse is when people want to remember something. In the case of the college-age me, my first impulse when needing to know an upcoming event would not be to scan my own mind, but to open my day planner.

In my transactive memory family, the impulse would be to ask Junior. For many people now, especially younger people, the impulse is to turn to Google or some other online source instead of even trying to remember.

What’s interesting is that the extra step of first thinking about where information can be found online, then—as a last resort—scanning one’s own memory increases the amount of time it takes for people to remember things.

So as the time it takes to find things online declines, it also has the unexpected result of making the recalling of knowledge from one’s own brain slower.

What appears to be happening in aggregate is that with each passing year, more people are “remembering” information not by scanning their own memories but by scanning the collective online memory.