Posts Tagged ‘Epistemology’

The Google Effect and Transactive Memory

January 11, 2012

A brief piece1 in Scientific American Mind reports on some of the results of experiments done by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. In one of the experiments two groups of undergraduates were presented with trivia statements. One group was told that they could retrieve this information later on their computers, and the other group were told that they could not retrieve this information on the computer. The former group exhibited worse recall than the latter group. This finding should not surprise anyone. Sparrow said that this finding does not mean that the internet is dumbing us down. Rather we are adapting to an internet world.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should realize that relying on the internet is an example of transactive memory. When we can readily access the information on the internet, that is referred to as accessible transactive memory. When we need to search for information on the internet, then that is an example of available transactive memory. All the information that is resident on the internet is part of the vast amount of information in potential transactive memory.

I can imagine tests in the internet age allowing students to bring their computers to class and to access the internet while taking essay examination. The capacity to find and assemble this information into coherent essays should easily be accepted as a valid measure of understanding. It is understood that the essays should include references and links to references.

Still, there are dangers to relying too heavily on transactive memory. There is useful analogy here to physical exercise. Currently, there is technology available to allow some of us to avoid all physical exertion. Unfortunately, making heavy use of this technology can have adverse effects on physical health. Similarly, placing too heavy reliance on transactive memory might have adverse effects on brain health. There are also questions regarding epistemology, how do we know what we know. A reasonable assumption is that information that can be recalled from our personal memories is more deeply encoded and better understood, than information we need to look up in some external source. Too much reliance on transactive memory can led to us becoming familiar with a large amount of information, without having anything akin to mastery with any of it. Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide how well we need to know it. Transactive memory is a great convenience. Committing everything to personal memory would slow us down and limit the breadth of our knowledge. There is this tradeoff between breadth and depth of knowledge that needs careful consideration.

1Casselman, A. (2012). The Google Effect. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When to Rely On Transactive Memory

February 8, 2010

Say you encounter a new piece of information. This piece of information could be as simple as a phone number or a major work that is central to your interests. Should you commit this information to your personal memory, or should rely upon external, transactive memory? This question has arisen in educational circles with respect to the multiplication tables. Now that calculators are ubiquitous, is there still a need to memorize the multiplication tables? The need for this can be argued from two points of view. One has to do with the standard for knowing. If something is important for understanding arithmetic and advanced mathematics, should not this information be resident in memory? If the answer is “yes”, then this needs to be committed to memory.

The second point of view is one of convenience. Will one always have a calculator available? Will it be worth the time and effort in finding a calculator to perform multiplication? What about potential emergencies when it might be a matter of life or death, but no calculator was available? If convenience is a factor, that alone might be justification for committing the multiplication tables to memory.

We are confronted with this problem everyday. Suppose you encounter a phone number. Do you need to commit this number to memory? There are mnemonic techniques that facilitate the memory for these numbers (see the blog posts “Remembering Numbers,” “More on Remembering Numbers,”, “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.”). But these techniques require mental effort. Should you extend this mental effort? Not surprisingly the answer is, “It depends.”

Wayne Gray and his colleagues have developed a hypothesis, the soft constraints hypothesis, to address this question.1 This hypothesis says that your choice will be based upon a rational cost benefit analysis. In other words, if this phone number is to be used only once, you will most likely not commit it to personal memory, but will rely upon transactive memory, a piece of paper for example. However, if you are going to use this number frequently and cannot rely upon speed dial (a type of transactive memory), you will commit it to memory. They present extensive and thorough evidence supporting the notion that this is, in general, how people behave. However, people do not always behave in this rational manner. In my personal experience there are times when I have relied way too much on external supports when it would have been more efficient to commit the information to my personal memory.

At other times, however, the criterion will concern how deeply you need to understand the information. Do you only need to bookmark or tag where to find it should you need it in the future? Although you need the information, it is still not central to your primary interest and can get by with knowing where to locate the information. Or is the information central to your understanding and needs to be committed to your personal memory. You would not usually commit a major piece of work central to your interests to verbatim memory, but you would commit its essence and its major points to personal memory. The number and depth of those points would depend upon the importance of the particular work.

1Gray, W. D., Sims, C. R., Fu, W-T, Schoelles, M. J. (2006). The Soft Constraints Hypothesis: A Rational Analysis
Approach to Resource Allocation for Interactive Behavior. Psychological Review, 113, 461-482.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Do We Need to Know

November 22, 2009

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, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.