How are changing behaviour is weakening our memory…


Our brain is simply adapting… is it for our good?

My fascination with the mysteries of the brain is nothing new… but my recent exposure to evolutionary psychology has added a new dimension to this study… I learnt that while human behaviour is definitely driven by our biological makeup, in recent history it is our environment, our social structure and changing tools that are influencing our evolution more rapidly. We are no longer waiting for our genes to mutate, but our constantly changing environments are pushing us to adapt quickly – often with radical implications.

It may sound farfetched, but here’s an example that we can all relate to. Google (and internet) has changed our approach to information – now with any-and-all information being just-a-click away, it seems pointless to try to remember the actual information – all that is needed is to know what-and-how to access the information, and it can easily be referred to when needed.

We are already living this new behavior… we are slowly collecting more links and references than facts and figures!

At least I am. I remember telling a friend recently that while I still remember all the nuances of early programming languages I coded in (including some of the assembly languages), I hardly recall even the basic syntax of any of the newer languages – because I don’t need to – and whenever I have had to write some code, I quickly look up a link and apply that as needed. It’s definitely different from how I worked earlier. Good or bad – I don’t know. It makes my life simpler today – and gives me more flexibility to operate in diverse environments, that too with relative ease.

If I stop and think, then I accept that I am fully cognizant of this change in my approach – and probably even consider it natural – to me it is as if we are adding external memory and expanding the capacity of our brain.

So it was quite a shock to learn that, however unknowingly, our changing behaviour has started to train our brain differently. For better or worse – I can’t say.

We are becoming more and more dependent on our recognition memory, or the ability to recognize previously encountered events, objects or people, and uses the stimuli as a reminder that the information has been seen before and provides a cue to access the information. As this information is being accessed externally (over the internet and other media), the other dimension of our memory – the recall memory – that looks up our long-term memory and retrieves the information from the past is slowing being relegated to the sidelines. The result is that our ability to remember and recall information (from our long term memory) is weakening day-by-day.

Our changing behaviour has already started to bring in a change in the functioning of the brain. Even though, today our brain still has the ability to remember and recall information – it is quite possible that over time humans may evolve to lose this capability. Or maybe I am just over reacting. But I for one do not like the idea of being dependent on machines – completely – and I think it is in our interest to slow down and nurture our ability to learn and remember

(and for that all that it requires is for us to realize that our brain tends to forget what it learns – and this forgetting curve is steepest in the first 24 hours – and the answer lies in spaced learning, i.e. learning and refreshing over increasing intervals of time, that helps us to learn quicker and better.)

This note is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.

[This article was first published @LinkedIn on Feb 4, 2018.]


I recently concluded that I learn more from Success than Failure… and yet, isn’t it ironic that we are still obsessed with learning from failure?

right or wrong

It is popular belief – especially in the startup eco-system – that failure is a stepping-stone to success. I cannot deny that this gave me a lot of confidence (and comfort) when I co-founded a technology startup, as I believed that the worst outcome (for me) would be all the great learning that I will acquire, even if we faltered on the way.

Now, after many years of living the startup journey, I have lots of learning – both good and bad. But, being true to the spirit of learning from failure, I always diligently record everything that doesn’t work. I even look at it often, analyse it sometimes, and consciously try not to follow the same approach again. But then everything changed one day…

It was just one of those days when I was flustered – I was looking for answers and I was getting irritated as I realised that for every previous effort that had failed, I only knew what did not work. But I still had no clue of what would work? I asked myself – how effective is that learning – if I still have to go back to the drawing board and continue the search for answers on how to make it work? I was not very upbeat as I had gone through the process once and failed to find the answer, and what was the guarantee that the second search would be any more fruitful?

In that state of exasperation, I happened to come across an interesting neuroscience research that suggested that brain cells only learn from experience when we do something right and not when we fail. I was intrigued.

I wondered if I could correlate it with my own personal experience – so I tried to test the theory on the problem at hand. Our mobile-video based service for sharing experiences, stories and insights is deployed across 25+ countries in Europe. Most groups are very actively engaged, but few still require constant nudges. All our discussion around driving adoption in the low-activity groups has always focused on what wasn’t working for these groups. That day we changed our outlook – we instead discussed everything that was working for the high-activity groups. We uncovered simple observations and found interesting patterns. We realised that we just had never bothered to re-apply this successful learning back into the groups that required external stimuli.

That was the day I realised, that my obsession with learning from failure meant that I was simply – taking for granted – everything that was working for us. Here was an opportunity for us to focus on the success and build upon it – I knew what worked and I could make it happen again, maybe even do it much better. And yet I was spending more of my time in learning from failures. Why? It made no sense.

I am now a convert. I now track our successes as much as (if not more) than the failed attempts. Of-course I know that I need to be cautious and ensure that I am not blinded by success. More importantly I am cognisant that I need to continuously strive to do better than the last success. And, of-course it also does not mean that I overlook failures – but I now look at them in the right context.

Learn from success is my new mantra! I realise that the need is not to glorify success – but to recognize core strengths and convert them into strategic assets. Just as it is important to manage our weaknesses, we also need to diligently work on developing our strengths. And believe me – it is harder to focus on strengths, far much easier to lapse into failures, regrets, emotions.

This article was first published on LinkedIn on September 13, 2015 [ref.]

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. humanLearning is disrupting business work-flows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform that empowers ‘every’ professional to benefit from each other’s experiences & insights in the easiest, fastest and most impactful way.