A Memory Shortcut, With a Little Help From Friends

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2018, The New York Times Company).

“Always remember everything,” my mother is fond of saying.

Of course, as she knows, this is impossible, even with advanced memory techniques. That’s why we take notes and use calendars. These are components of our external memory, which are parts of our extended minds.

That your mind may not be entirely housed within your skull may be difficult to grasp. In their seminal paper, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers made the case that some functions we perform with other objects should be considered on par with thought that occurs in our brains. Using pen and paper to help perform a calculation is one example. Many people, myself included, manipulate words on a page (or the digital equivalent) to figure out what they think about a topic or to develop an argument.

That the communication channels between paper (or screen) and brain involve vision and the movement of fingers rather than only the firing of neurons makes not a whit of difference, Mr. Clark and Mr. Chalmers argue. The end result is the same as if we had done the entire calculation or written the entire essay in our heads.

“What matters is not where stuff is encoded, or in what medium, but the uses to which it can readily be put,” Mr. Clark said. Working on a computer offers an analogy. “It doesn’t really matter whether some piece of information is stored on your hard drive or in the cloud, as long as it’s usually ready for access when the need is there.”

This leads to memory extension, which is more cut and dried. To enhance biological memory, everybody consults external media and objects. We take — and later, revisit — pictures to remember vacations, weddings and other events. We store the memory about what to wear tomorrow by laying out our clothes tonight. We make grocery lists.

You may protest that the things in which this information is stored — photos, the location of clothing, a scrap of paper — are not very mindlike. Perhaps on those grounds you object to calling that which they convey to us “memories.” Maybe only minds can remember things, and the rest are merely recall aids.

But this argument breaks down when considering the vast amount of information we don’t store in our heads, but is easily and reliably retrieved from elsewhere. For example, we may not know, and never remember in our heads, the cast of “Game of Thrones,” but we know how to find out. And we need not commit it to (our biological) memory because we can always look it up.

When we do so, we’re not using the information source to remind ourselves what’s already in our heads. The information isn’t there, and it may never be. Yet, as if it were, we can retrieve it whenever we like by other means. That’s memory extension.

We’ve gotten so used to relying on external memory on our smartphones that we store less in our heads than we otherwise might. One study showedthat we are less able to recall information we expect to be able to search for on the web — and instead have better recall for how to find it online.

Another study found that people who took pictures of artwork in a museum were less able to recall the artwork and their locations than those who visited the museum without snapping photos. Those of us old enough to remember life before smartphones used to memorize important phone numbers. Few do so now or even try. We could, but why bother?

There’s another type of memory extension that is even more mindlike. We routinely extend our memories by using other people’s minds, and our minds serve as memory extenders for others. Anyone with children is constantly remembering things for them — what time they need to be at soccer practice, where it is, what they need to bring. My children know the names of many other children and their parents, a resource I draw on regularly at family social events because I often forget — or never knew — them.

Paying close attention to this kind of external memory is of some professional value. A few years ago, my work demands began to overwhelm my ability to remember important information. Using some mental trickshelped, but I still couldn’t keep up.

So I switched strategies. Recognizing that there was some redundancy in remembering certain things that others knew, I gave up trying. Instead, I made more of an effort to keep track of the areas in which each of my colleagues was expert. If they have the information stored in their minds, and if I can access those minds relatively easily — for instance with a quick email or even a tweet — there’s no need for me to remember that information.

For example, if I need to know about which nutrition studies to trust, I could simply ask my colleague Aaron Carroll, who just wrote a book on the topic.

But what if I encounter a colleague using the same approach, and we both think the other is doing the remembering? When I worry that might be the case, I ask: “Am I keeping track of this or you?” That settles it. In fact, I end many meetings or email exchanges at work just this way. Once a plan of action or a solution to a problem is worked out, I make it clear who has ownership of it and will make sure crucial information isn’t lost.

At home, my wife and I are explicit about who is handling which follow-up to the myriad demands associated with my children’s school and extracurricular activities. Whatever is on her plate (i.e., in her head), I largely forget about. Whatever is on mine, I better remember!

Humans have been using this kind of mind extension forever. Passage of information from brain to brain orally was the norm well before writing. We’re social animals and formed social networks long before social media. We’re accustomed to relying on one another for information as much as anything else. So remembering who said what or who knows what comes naturally.

Harnessing this to strategically store and retrieve memories from other people’s minds is not a big leap. It relieves you from trying to do what you can’t do anyway: always remember everything.

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