"Every perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination."
-- Gerald Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge
10 How important is memory, anyway？How to invent Hindu-Arabic numerals？How important is memory, anyway？How can we develop transformative tools for thought？2020-10-18Journal
Memory systems don't make it easy to decide what to memorize: Most obviously, we meet a lot of people who use memory systems for poorly chosen purposes. The following is surprisingly close to a transcript of a conversation we've both had many times:
> “I don’t like \[memory system\]. I tried to memorize the countries in Africa, and it was boring.”
> “Why were you trying to remember the countries in Africa?”
> \[blank look of confusion.\]
It's easy to poke fun at this kind of thing. But we've both done the equivalent in our own memory practices. Even some users of Quantum Country seem to be going through the motions out of some misplaced sense of duty. The question “what will be beneficial to memorize” is fundamental, and answering that question well is not trivial.
What's the real impact of the mnemonic medium on people's cognition? How does it change people's behavior? A famous boxer is supposed to have said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Regular users of memory systems sometimes report that while they can remembers answers when being tested by their system, that doesn't mean they can recall them when they really need them. There can be a tip-of-the-tongue feeling of “Oh, I know this”, but not actual recall, much less the fluent facility one ultimately wants for effective action. Furthermore, the user may not even recognize opportunities to use what they have learned. More broadly: memory is not an end-goal in itself. It's embedded in a larger context: things like creative problem-solving, problem-finding, and all the many ways there are of taking action in the world. We suspect the impact of memory systems will vary a lot, depending on their design. They may be used as crutches for people to lean on. Or they may be used to greatly enable people to develop other parts of their cognition. We don't yet understand very well how to ensure they're enablers, rather than crutches. But later in the essay we'll describe some other tools for thought that, when integrated with memory systems, may better enable this transition to more effective action.