What Do We Need to Know

This is the question we ask whenever we encounter new information, be it an article, a website, or whatever. If it is of no interest the answer is simple, no we do not need to know this and we proceed no further. The question becomes more difficult when the answer is “yes.” Then the question becomes “how well do we need to know it?” If it is of extreme importance or interest, then one decision might be to commit it, or the gist of it, to memory on the spot. Rarely do we encounter something of this importance or interest, but if we did commit it to memory we would need to devote some attention to its maintenance. Otherwise it could become lost from or inaccessible to memory. So it might also be a good idea to store it in some sort of transactive memory, either to save the file or to tag or bookmark it. If it is also of interest to an acquaintance you could also tell them about the item and why it is so important to you.

In most cases you would either save, tag, or bookmark the item. Should you fail to do so, at a later time you might recall there was something of interest or importance, but be unable to find it. So you need to take recourse to transactive memory frequently or you will be in a state of having a wealth of memories, but being unable to access it.

Essentially, you need to decide what level of effort the information affords. You cannot remember everything and to a large extent what you do remember depends on the amount of effort you expend. Although you could commit a great deal of information to memory, you would do this at the cost of remaining ignorant of other information (to say nothing of the free time lost). Some idiot savants commit enormous amounts of information to memory (remember Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man?”), but these people are often socially inept. So you want to learn thing, have social relationships, and enjoy life. And you do this by relying on transactive memory

This is an interesting question because it is asking what does it mean to “know” something? In most tests taken at school the standard is whether the information can be retrieved from memory. Sometimes, as in multiple choice or true false tests, the criterion is whether the information can be recognized. In fill in the blank or essay questions, the criterion is whether the information can be recalled. Usually one of the requirements for a Ph.D. that needs to be passed before you can do a dissertation is a comprehensive exam. Usually this exam is written and is an enormous closed book test on the relevant material in the subject in which you are trying to earn a Ph.D. That was true in my case in which I had to answer question without the aid of external supports (no lifelines!)

A reasonable question is whether this is the only criterion for knowing. Suppose you know where to find the specific material. So you know what the material is about and where it fits into some general scheme of knowledge. Does this not also imply that you have some knowledge about a topic? Does not having information in transactive memory and being able to access it also count as knowledge?

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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