“Head In The Cloud” is an important book by William Poundstone. The subtitle is “Why Knowing Things Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up.” Psychologists make the distinction between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory. Information that you can easily recall is obviously accessible in memory. However, there is other information that you might not be able to recall now, but that you know that you know it. This information eventually becomes accessible and can appear suddenly unsummoned in consciousness.
Transactive memory refers to information you can get from our fellow humans or from technology. Most information available in technology can readily be summoned via Google searches. An extreme view argues that since all this information is available, we do not need to remember the information itself as long as we know how to search for the information. Whenever we encounter new information we are confronted with the question as to whether we need to commit this information to our biological memory. This is a nontrivial question as committing information to memory requires cognitive effort, thinking, or in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process Theory, engaging our System 2 processes. The healthy memory blog has a category devoted to mnemonic techniques explicitly designed to assist in memorizing information as well as other discussions regarding how to make information memorable. But all of this involves effort, so why bother if it can simply be looked up? “Head in the Cloud” explains the benefits of moving some information from the cloud into our brains.
Poundstone describes an experiment done in 2011 by Daniel Wegner. He presented volunteers with a list of forty trivia facts—short, pithy statement such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.” Half of the volunteers were told to remember the facts. The other half were not. Within each of these groups half were informed that their work would be stored on the computer, and half were told that their work would be immediately erased after the task’s completion. All these volunteers were later given a quiz on the facts they typed. It did not matter whether they had been instructed to remember the information or not. It only mattered if they thought their work was going to be erased after the task. These volunteers remembered more regardless of whether they were told to remember the information.
The following is directly from the text “It is impossible to remember everything. The brain must constantly be doing triage on memories, without conscious intervention. And apparently it recognizes that there is less need to stock our minds with information that can be readily retrieved. So facts are more often forgotten when people believe the facts will be archived. This phenomenon has earned a name—the Google effect—describing the automatic forgetting of information that can be found online.”
HM does not disagree with any of the above quote. However, he is alarmed by what is omitted. That omission regards a conscious decision as to whether the information should be further processed to increase its accessibility without technology and whether it is related to other information that might require further research. It is true that we are time constrained, so that depending on the situation the time available for such consideration will be important. But as Poundstone will show, it is important to get some information out of the cloud and into the brain, and we can consciously alter the processing we give to the retrieved information. Sans attention, it will likely remain in the cloud.
Poundstone reports an enormous amount of research conducted by a new type of polling called an Internet panel survey. These are conducted by an organization that has recruited a large group of subjects (the panel) who agree to participate in surveys. When a new survey begins, the software selects a random sample of the panel to contact. E-mails containing links are sent to the selected participants, typically in several waves to achieve a demographic balance closely approximating the general populations. The sample can be balance for sex, age, ethnicity, education, income, and other demographic markers of interest to the research project.
A prior healthy memory blog post appropriately titled “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” discusses the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning is a psychology professor and Kruger was a graduate student. The effect is that “Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to understand their lack of knowledge.” The flip-side of this effect is that those most knowledgeable are most aware of any holes in their knowledge.
“Actor John Cleese concisely explains the Dunning-Kruger effect in a much-shared You Tube video: ‘If you’re very, very stupid how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are…And this explains not just Hollywood but almost the entirety of Fox News’”
The chaos and contradictions of the current political environment can perhaps best be characterized as a glaring example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Just a few moments of contemplation should reveal the potential danger from this effect. Poundstone’s book reveals the glaring lack of knowledge in many important areas by too many individuals. He also provides ample evidence of the benefits of moving certain information from the cloud and into our brains.
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