Deeper Memories, Lasting ResultsAugust 23, 2010
Here’s another concept from Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, a book which shows how information technology is changing our brains. Over several chapters, Carr painstakingly recounts studies that compare short-term to long-term memory. The first conclusion he draws is that we do not memorize any more. The Internet, as a repository of facts, has inclined us to stop remembering things we can easily look up. He clearly proves that people retain much more information in short-term memory than in the past. Short-term memory lasts for about an hour before it has to be renewed.
The second conclusion is intriguing. When a person does commit something to memory, it is the act of memorizing that causes our brains to consider deeper connections to that subject. For instance, as we memorize a poem, our brain forms permanent neural pathways around the concepts in the poem. Our mind then stops thinking only about the words it is memorizing and wanders into the meaning, implications and random connections to that poem.
For instance, when I was young, I memorized Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Fern Hill”. It begins this way:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
The phrase “the night above the dingle starry” lead my 7th grade mind to consider the meaning of “dingle” (a word I had never used). I looked it up in my dictionary and found it meant a “deep valley with steep walls”. We had many dingles in the hills above my house, so I started to go climbing those hills after school, seeking out dingles. My brother and I even slept out all night in one of the dingles to see what it would be like when the stars came out. It was amazing: The steep slopes of the hill blocked all aberrant light from town and the stars jumped out.
What happened? In burning the poem into my brain, my mind was forced to go deeper with the concepts contained in the poem. At later times, I considered what it meant to be “prince of the apple towns” and “happy as the grass is green.” Each time, I wandered into sub-routines of delightful thoughts which lead to excursions in my free time. My friend Dave Rubel and I even built a go-kart we called “The Appletown Express”. He never did know why we called it that.
Reflective thinking is the process whereby we take the most meaningful pieces of our short-term experience and we decide which are most important to be stored in long-term memory. Snippets of conversation, remembered experiences, tactile responses all are things we can meditate upon at the end of a day to cipher out the memorable stuff .
The Internet forces the brain to abandon its deep mines of meaning, cultivating instead a surface broadness that crams stuff into short-term memory. We lose most of it by the time we awake, when we start the process over again. In this, we lose any benefits from the previous day’s experiences.
How can one be as happy as the grass is green when we are always mowing the stuff and never lying down in it?
UPDATE: After writing this last night, on my way to an appointment, I listened to NPR’s program “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. She did the first half of the program entirely on the subject of how technology is preventing our brains from functioning how they used to. Here is the link: Fresh Air broadcast. The audio of the program will be available after 2 p.m. Pacific time today (Aug. 24, 2010).