Remembering Is a Social Act


The worry about mental laziness is a really big one; the idea that because we can turn to Wikipedia or turn to our phone and we can get an answer to a question that somehow our brain is becoming slack like an empty wine bladder. In a way, when I started the book [Smarter Than You Think], I worried about that myself. I felt everyone else’s sense of, “Wow, I don’t really remember phone numbers anymore. Is that a metaphor or metonym for the overall inability for my brain to retain things?”

But the more I looked at the way memory works what I learned was the fragility of human memory is such that we’ve always been really terrible at the details of knowledge. We’re really good at retaining the meaning of something — we study something, we read about it, we talk about it with someone. We’re good at cementing the gist of something but we’re really bad at the details.

Historically, we’ve had all these ways of storing the details, the stuff we want to remember. We think of a lot of it as happening in paper — we write this knowledge down in books and we write in articles and we save them and store them so we can look at them — but the truth is that most of the knowledge we store outside of us is stored in other people, it’s this thing called “transactive memory” … we each rely on each other for these details. … We’re actually using each other to help remember these things because our brains are dreadful, dreadful at the details. This has been something we’ve done for hundreds and thousands of years; it’s why socially we’re smarter when we’re around each other. We’re not just social thinkers, we’re social rememberers.

Clive Thompson, on the You Are Not So Smart podcast (2013), talking about the limitations of memory. See more podcast picks.


Photo: GallivantingGirl, Flickr