When everything we do is recorded and remembered by our technology, what role does memory have? Keeping us human.
You’ve already forgotten almost everything that’s ever happened to you. Even immediately after you finish this, you won’t remember everything you read. A sentence might pop into your mind in a few days, remixed with something else as a new experience enters your stream of consciousness and disappears just as fast. That’s the nature of memory, which is far less reliable than you might think.
Experience is a blur punctuated by a few bright moments that stand out. But even those so-called “flashbulb memories,” salient as they seem at the time, are as easily forgotten as their more banal counterparts. Few people realize how wrong their recollections, even of pivotal or traumatizing events like 9/11, can be.
As humans become more entwined with technology, however, that’s starting to change. What does that mean for the future of memory?
THE MEMORY PALACE
If it’s true that memory is an artificial construct, what does that mean about our relationship with our own experiences? When I first met my colleague James Jorasch, inventor and founder of Science House, he taught me a few of the tricks, including the construction of a memory palace, that he uses to compete in the US Memory Championship.
The book Moonwalking with Einstein details the process used by memory competitors. They don’t memorize an entire deck of cards in order by recalling them the way they appear. Instead, the King of Clubs might become Tiger Woods, who then appears as a character in a larger story that unfolds in your memory palace, which could be your childhood home or any familiar environment.
Memory is complicated, but to try to simplify it: It operates on two tracks. First, the small seahorse-shaped hippocampus in your brain acts like a bouncer at a club, letting in bits that help the brain survive. The pieces of information deemed worthy of recall are passed on to the amygdala, which doesn’t encode a perfect copy. The true point of memory, ultimately, is survival. The brain remembers how to find food or avoid the familiar face of an enemy. Your brain doesn’t need the names, numbers or irrelevant details associated with an event.
“Machines and humans have two different languages of memory,” James says. “Machine memory is binary, while brain memory employs images. In between, we speak a third language: words. Right now, we speak to people as if they are machines and will remember perfectly. In the future, however, we will optimize a shared language for recall.”
This new language will be a synthesis of machine and human memory. It is nascent today in the art and science of visualization. Math and imagination form a collective super-memory that we can tap into to make better decisions about survival together.
MEMORY IS A RECONSTRUCTION
As a child, Dr. David Eagleman fell off a roof. Though the drop took less than a second, it felt much longer, sparking his interest in memory and time. Now the director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor University, Eagleman has been known to toss people off a 150-foot roof onto a safety net so he can examine their memory of the event.
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