August 31, 2010
The Shallows 6: Try to Remember
Something’s gained: Everything is on the web. It’s an external hard drive for the brain, relieving us of the responsibility to remember mindless lists of facts or extended passages of literature. We free up our brain power so we can do other, more important things.
Something’s lost: Because of the way the brain works, when we cease exercising our memory, we don’t merely lose isolated bits of information. We actually lose the ability to gain insight and understanding.
In fact, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, because of the way the brain changes and grows,
When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory, he’s not “freeing up” space in his brain for other functions… . Long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections… . We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. (p. 192)
Inventions, new ideas, creative stories, effective strategies—none of these appear ex nihilo out of our minds. They always result from associating two or more already existing things that hadn’t been previously put together, or hadn’t been put together in quite that way before. The more thoughts, information, experiences and knowledge that is rumbling around in our brains, the more possibilities there are for insights, understanding and wisdom. The less the brain has to work with, the less it will produce.
As William James says in his 1892 lecture on memory, quoted by Carr (p. 195), “The connecting is the thinking.”
Next Installment: The Shallows 7: The Computer’s Dream