Memory breakdown: How technology is taking hold of our ability to remember

We rely on our handy smartphones to remember everything from phone numbers to our friend’s birthdays. Those sleek devices serve as a type of 'external hard drive' for our memory. Contributor Jess Shane explores what happens when the art of memorization is lost.

Our reliance on smartphones have some arguing we're losing our grasp of memory

Smartphones serve as a type of 'external hard drive' for our memory. But what happens when the art of memorization is lost? (Mut Hardman / Shutterstock)

**Originally published on September 6, 2018.

We rely on our handy smartphones to remember everything. From phone numbers to our friends' birthdays, these sleek devices serve as a type of 'external hard drive' for our memory. 

Our reliance on portable technology has led some to argue that we're losing our grasp of memory on a larger scale, and in turn, our hold on the foundations of knowledge.

[We are] so busily multitasking, so bombarded by voluminous information that we aren't focusing in the same way, and therefore we aren't remembering.- Maryanne Wolf

Memory in pre-literate times

Memorization was key to preserving and creating knowledge in pre-literate times. In pre-literate Ancient Greece, memorization was the basis of the education system for society's elite. 

Serious scholars would be expected to recite Homer's epic poems as proof of their wisdom. Back-to-back, the Odyssey and the Iliad would take more than 18 hours to recite. 

"The memorization of Homer was a useful tool to embellish whatever point was being made by an orator," says Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University and UCLA who studies the reading brain. 

"Memorization [...] was used as a kind of diving board into any important point or insight that people made." 

Memorization wasn't about being able to pull facts from the air so much as to act as an index from which to create original thought and ideas. 

Circa 410 BC, The Greek philosopher Socrates taught through argumentative dialogue. He never wrote anything but his dialogues were recorded by his students, including Plato. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When the Greek Alphabet was created, scholars argued that the reading and writing would cheapen knowledge and education. Intellectuals like Socrates argued that writing would be a recipe not for remembering but for forgetting, and would create an illusion of knowledge.

Neuroscience has since proven Socrates' hunch that memorizing in tandem with critical thinking helps to solidify knowledge. But his concerns, flagged more than 2,000 years ago, have unexpected relevance in today's digital age. 

Computer memory vs. biological memory

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote about how the tools and technology we develop can numb the physical parts of ourselves we seek to extend. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, says that this applies to technologies designed to extend the mind as well. 

"Our ability to remember things seems to be reduced by when we're gathering information through our phones and through Google and off the Web," says Carr.

"What that seems to imply is that on the one hand, we have all this artificial memory that we can tap into. So it extends our memory in that sense, but we're less likely to form our own personal internal biological memories of all that stuff, so it numbs the memory faculty inside our minds."

Carr argues that this idea that our technologies are external hard drives for our memories fundamentally misunderstands the process of how biological memory works.

"It's this richly organic process that's all about connections and associations and looks very different from mechanical computer memory, which really is about about storing discrete bits of information in many different containers and then pulling them out when you need to use them." 

Guests in this episode:

  • Maryanne Wolf is a professor at Tufts University and UCLA, and the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice. She is also the author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World and Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.
  • Catherine Robson is an English professor at NYU the author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, which chronicles the history of poetry recitation in the British and American education systems. 
  • Nicholas Carr is a technology writer who has written several books on the effects of technology, including The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
  • Andrea Kuzmich and Shalva Makharashvili are Georgian polyphonic singers and instructors based in Toronto. They were joined by their sons and fellow singers, Luca and Gabo Makharashvili. Andrea is also a PhD Candidate in ethnomusicology, and director of Musicamp an ethnomusicology-inspired music camp.
  • Mohamed Isse Nuh is a taxi driver in Toronto who has memorized 14 generations of his family ancestry.
  • Nasreen Cheema is a school teacher, Hafiza, and teacher of Qu'ran memorization in Toronto.
  • Denis Huppe is a Grade 4 teacher at the Toronto French School who incorporates poetry recitation into his curriculum. He spoke to us from his classroom with students Sadie, Titan, Regan, Mallory, Maïa and Kaitlynn.
  • Andrew Case is a professional actor in Toronto.
  • Simon Luisi is the founder of the Canadian Memory Championships.
  • Mike Rodin is a competitive memorizer and the winner of the 2016 Ontario Memory Championships.
  • Additional thanks to Brandon Vasquez and clients of the Memory Link program at Baycrest Centre in Toronto. He researches the integration of technology into intervention for individuals with acquired brain injury.

Jess Shane is a radio producer based in Toronto. She loves telling sound-rich stories that leave listeners space for thinking and imagining. Her radio docs have aired on CBC's The Doc Project, Love MeNow or Never, BBC's Short Cuts and WBEZ's Re:Sound. She also curates Constellations, an experimental radio and sound art project. Recently, she's worked with CBC Original Podcasts as an associate producer on Personal Best. When she's not hunched over her laptop with headphones on, you'll probably find her singing while biking or chatting up a stranger.

Twitter: @iamjessshane.

**This documentary was supported by CBC Radio's Doc Project. It was produced by Nicola Luksic and Jess Shane.