We are our memory. We are that chimerical museum of fickle shapes, that pile of broken mirrors ”. It is difficult to find a better definition of memory than that offered by Jorge Luis Borges in this poem. Remembering, an essential function of our brain, is also to check the fragility of our memory. How wrong it can be, how vulnerable to contamination from what is remembered by others, or even how capable of making false memories, as demonstrated by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Memory errors are the norm and not the exception, because the experiences of our life do not remain recorded In our mind, not even the past can be rewinding they are simply stored in multiple fragments, and with the passage of time, those blurred fragments can recombine in a different way than the events occurred in their day.
Without attention there is no memory. And in a world dominated by infinite technological distractions, it is pertinent to ask whether the trace of our memories will be lighter. Will our already fragile data file From the past? Julia Shaw, a researcher in Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London, addresses the question in The illusion of memory (Today’s Topics, 2021). A book in which he reviews, from a neurological, biochemical and, above all, psychological point of view, the mechanisms that allow us to remember, and the failures of our memory.
To begin with, we fall into the error of multitasking. We believe that it is possible to have a domestic conversation while we send whatsapps with the mobile and take a look at the news on the tablet. But our brain is not ready to multitask. The neurologist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Earl Miller has studied for years how modern humans are specialists in rapidly moving from one task to another, rather than dealing with a multitude of tasks simultaneously. And that jump between different activities carries a “cognitive cost”. In other words, it leads us to perform worse on tasks and has a negative impact on our ability to remember things later, points out Julia Shaw in her book.
Margarita Diges Junco, professor of Memory Psychology and co-director of the Experimental Forensic Psychology Unit of the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), knows this well. In the experiments that he conducts to verify the strength of the testimonies in court cases, he has seen how when performing two exercises at the same time, the memory of the participants suffers. “In addition to looking at the images on a screen, we ask them to take care of another task that does not involve the sight, but the hand, because it involves drawing crosses and lines,” he explains by phone. “When it comes to remembering what was seen, the result is that they mention things that were not in the filming, even a bus or a non-existent fountain.”
What about the distraction of smartphones? “People tend to pay less attention to their surroundings because they are attentive to the mobile. That equates to having fewer memories of the events in his life, ”Shaw explains by email. “And, furthermore, this is how we outsource part of our memory to mobile phones. Research has shown that we are less likely to remember complex details of what we have done, or where we have been, if we dedicate ourselves to photographing it. I’m not saying that you don’t have to take pictures, but you have to make an effort to pay attention and process your surroundings. If not, you may find that you don’t know why you took a certain photo, or who the person sitting next to you was. “
Margarita Diges, from the UAM, also underlines the risks of deconcentration posed by mobiles. “When you are driving, even if you are looking at the road, if you answer a phone call because it is important, the attention you pay is taking away from what comes into view … the road.” A 2006 University of Utah study, quoted by Shaw in his book, compared the behavior of drunk drivers with that of those who were talking on their cell phones. He concluded that, even when using the hands-free device, the risk of suffering accidents was similar between both groups.
The internet also affects our memory. Thanks to the Internet, we have search engines that provide access to vast amounts of information, and we have vehicles for immediate communication: social networks. Brian Clark, an educational researcher at Western Illinois University, concluded that as a result of this planetary connection, our memory is being transformed. “The distinction between public memory and private memory has been blurred until it disappears,” he argued in a 2013 article. What circulates on the networks is comes back our memory.
One wonders if this collective memory will be less prone to errors than private memory. And the historical memory? In this case, there is a limit to error because we are dealing with real historical data, says Margarita Diges. “But if you look at historical moments like the Transition, you see that they are now recreated in a way that perhaps is not how we live them. What I remember is adapted to what I lived or rather to a mixture between what I lived and what I have read, because we are thinking about our history all the time…? I do not know anymore. What is clear is that the private experience of these events is colored by the collective memory, because it is very difficult to go against the current ”.
And it is much more difficult when memory can refresh easily thanks to Google. What would not be harmful per se, says Shaw, although it produces changes in the way we remember. Among other things because we no longer need to remember minor details: these are stored in our external brain, which is the internet. “In terms of learning, memory is slightly less important today, while the ability to identify information that is based on evidence is increasingly so,” he says. Einstein already said it: “What fits in your pocket, don’t keep it in your brain.”
Our hyper-connected world also facilitates robo of memories. On The illusion of memoryby Julia Shaw, a variety of experiments are collected that demonstrate how widespread it is to inadvertently take possession of the memories reported by others. Something that, Shaw points out, has always existed, especially in the family sphere: a nucleus that shares common memories, and where it is easier for the memories that one of the members recounted, over time, they are appropriated by another. And it is that those “broken mirrors” of which Borges spoke tend to recompose themselves even if it is at the cost of not reflecting reality.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.