Long term memory vs Internet

I recently finished reading the book ‘Why don’t students like school?’ by Daniel T. Willingham, which is a cognitive scientist’s explanation of how learning works. It is a great read and easily accessible to people without much background in psychology. One of the underlying pillars of the book is a simplified system of the mind, the trichotomy of environment, working memory, and long term memory. The book argues that we need to have ‘data’ in our long term memory in order to be able to recall them into the working memory when we want to use them, and that storing knowledge in our long term memory is not as automatic and self-evident as one would have thought.

There is one thing though which I am still wondering about: how much of this is true for the so called Internet generation of the youth? Researchers at CIBER, UCL suggest that the internet-generation of young people (born after 1993) searches information in new ways. Research has found that the speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in evaluating information. Therefore following the logic of Willingham, this generation exerts little effort to store information in long-term memory. But is it really necessary if Internet is now so readily available? Shouldn’t we accept that we now have access to Internet any second we want? The rate at which technology is developing there is a very good chance that access to Internet becomes even more part of every second of our life. Is there a chance that Internet can replace long term memory? And if this is true: does this mean that instead of trying to work on improving students’ long lasting memory today’s education should be more focused on improving students’ understanding of their information needs and help them develop more effective search strategies?


2 Responses to Long term memory vs Internet

  1. dwpandme says:

    I’m not a psychologist either but think I’ve always assumed that the process of committing the present moment to long term memory was a fairly unconscious and automatic process being a function of the quantity and regularity of those present moments distinguished by the dominating state of the central nervous system at that time. If much time is devoted regularly to study of data then that data will enter the long term memory. If that time was spent instead in searching for information then possibly the search techniques most often used would end up in long term memory instead. The only reason why it’s hard to store data in our long term memory seems to be that it is effortful to force ones mind into the state in which it is dominated by a single piece of data rather than the somewhat fuller experience of a physical activity performed in the context of a landscape necessarily involving many pieces of relevant data processed simultaneously by the CNS as we have evolved to do.

    I agree that modern technology has made the effort of studying data and thereby committing it to long term memory redundant but I would suggest that this view is justified on the grounds that data storage is now so cheap and available and I don’t see that ever being uninvented. It makes sense that things don’t pass into the LTM without dedicating considerable time at regular intervals as this is the best way to predict the things that will still be relevant far into the future. This would have worked well for our ancestors at any point in the last few million years up to a few hundred years ago. Since the second half of the last century the pace of change has accelerated to the extent that there are very few activities that we can say with real certainty will be relevant in, say, 30 or 40 years from now when young children today will still want to be relevant in the future skills market. I think we can safely say though that the opportunity cost of requiring the many hours spent for months and years in the study of data which can even now be easily stuck on a single usb flash drive is enormous.

    • orb75 says:

      I agree entirely – schools should teach kids to search (or to make search routines part of long term memory) rather than memorise facts.
      I often ask myself if the same is true for languages. If someone lives in a foreign country s/he will learn the local language (hopefully). But in the age where Babelfish type translators (even if somewhat imprecise) are really only a step away from us, it seemingly makes little sense for schools to make languages a compulsory part of the curriculum.

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