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.]