The unaugmented mind

A couple of years ago, when I needed to call someone, my phone wasn’t where I thought I’d left it. This was a problem. Back then I often called this person but I had no idea what his phone number was. Why would I? Remembering numbers is a job I delegate to my phone.

And finding my phone when I forget where I left it is a job I delegate to other phones. But when I reached for my cordless office phone it wasn’t where I thought I’d left it either. No problem. Finding my cordless when I forget where I left it is a job I delegate to its base station which is tethered and can’t wander.

So I walked over to the base station, paged the cordless, found it under a pile of papers, used it to call my cellphone, found it under another pile of papers, and used it to call my friend. Then I paused to reflect on technological augmentation.

Now don’t get me wrong, augmentation is a wonderful thing. Even fish, we have recently learned, use tools. I love delegating mental chores to devices and to the cloud. I am not a Luddite. But I am starting to think more about when not to delegate, and why not.

My mom is almost 90. She’s always known the numbers of the friends she often calls, and she still does. That’s a good thing because macular degeneration makes it impossible to read the numbers in her phone’s directory and difficult even to read the numbers she’s printed extra-large in her address book.

I’m not planning to memorize phone numbers. But I am exploring ways to usefully exercise the memory muscle. Just because I can look everything up doesn’t mean that I always must. Some kinds of things are worth keeping in the cache. But which?

In Behind the Dream Clarence Jones, Martin Luther King’s lawyer and adviser, writes:

What amazed me was that there was absolutely no reference material for Martin to draw upon. There he was [in the Birmingham jail] pulling quote after quote from thin air. The Bible, yes, as might be expected from a Baptist minister, but also British prime minister William Gladstone, Mahatma Gandhi, William Shakespeare, and St. Augustine.

If there’d been a web in 1963, and if MLK could access it from that jail, would the Letter from a Birmingham Jail have turned out differently? Would the differences have mattered? I’m not sure. It’s interesting to note that the quotes Clarence Jones seems to recall being in the letter aren’t all there. I don’t find Gladstone, Gandhi, or Shakespeare. I do find, along with St. Augustine, Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot and others. Does the discrepancy matter? Not really. What Jones remembers, and what I will now remember, is that MLK could remember, not precisely what he did remember.

Clarence Jones continues:

I have often said the sheer processing power of Martin’s mind left me awestruck. His dexterity with memory and words ran along the lines of the cut-and-paste function in today’s computer programs. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” showed his recall for the written material of others; his gruelling schedule of speeches illuminated his ability to do the same for his own words. Martin could remember exact phrases from several of his unrelated speeches and discover a new way of linking them together as if they were all parts of a singular ever-evolving speech. And he could do it on the fly.

Jones tells us that it was he who wrote the draft of I Have a Dream speech. And that Martin Luther King began to deliver it more or less as written. Then Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell ’em about the Dream, Martin.” So he did. He set aside the text that Jones had written, and that he had edited the night before, and gave an impromptu speech for the ages. Among many factors that conspired to make that possible were the processing and memory powers that Jones describes.

As our relationship to devices and the cloud reorganizes our brains, those powers are changing. But we’re not just passively experiencing these changes. We are actively co-creating the powers of our individual brains and of the collective brain we’re becoming.

When I was a kid I used to memorize poetry. A couple of years ago I was feeling no need to do anything like that ever again. But now I find myself wanting to exercise the memory muscle. I’ve decided that certain kinds of things belong in the unaugmented part of my brain. Among them, for me, right now, are fingerstyle guitar arrangements. My repertoire has grown slowly over the years, and it’s been a challenge to learn new arrangements. Lately I’ve been working to improve my ability to memorize them, though, and the effort feels intrinsically rewarding.

I’ve also noticed that one of the best talks I’ve ever given was the product of careful memorization. I think I see now why Ignite talks and Moth stories are done live without notes. I love having an outboard brain. But until we get the implants, we’ll want to keep the onboard one humming.

12 Comments

  1. Not yet. I’m no Adrian Holovaty. They need more work. Maybe someday! Of course, these aren’t my arrangements, I’ve learned them from books, so there’s that to consider as well.

  2. Very curious to see if someone from the Evernote product team has a take on this. Given how they want to be “your brain”, I’m sure they’ve done a lot of thinking in this direction.

    Nice post!

  3. I love memorizing poetry! The more email removes the need for postal mail, the more powerful a handwritten letter becomes. The more Google removes the need to memorize things, the more impressive memorization becomes (see http://www.starchamber.com/2008/02/tom-lehrer-lost-and-found.html). It reminds me of the Isaac Asimov story “The Feeling of Power” about a time in the future when doing math in your head seems fantastic and powerful (see http://www.themathlab.com/writings/short%20stories/feeling.htm).

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