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Why do we forget most of what we read and watch?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Do you remember the plots of books you read and movies you watch, even months later? I rarely do, so Julie Beck’s piece Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read really hit me square in the forehead this morning (even though I will likely forget having read it next week). Why do we forget all of this stuff we’re constantly consuming? Part of the reason is that we don’t need to:

In the internet age, recall memory — the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind — has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, Horvath says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it.

One of the earliest articulations of the internet’s value in aiding memory was Cory Doctorow’s piece about how Boing Boing had become his “outboard brain”.

The upshot is that operating Boing Boing has not only given me a central repository of all of the fruits of my labors in the information fields, but it also has increased the volume and quality of the yield. I know more, find more, and understand better than I ever have, all because of Boing Boing.

The nuggets I’ve mined are at my instant disposal. I can use Blogger’s search interface to retrieve the stories I’ve posted with just a few keywords. While prepping a speech, writing a column, or working on a story, I will usually work with a browser window open to Blogger’s “Edit Your Blog” screen, cursor tabbed into the search field. I flip back and forth between my browser and my editor, entering a few keywords and instantly retrieving the details of some salient point — it’s my personal knowledge management system, annotated and augmented by my readers.

So hopefully by reading Beck’s piece critically and then writing about it here, I will be able to both remember it a little more on my own and also have placed it somewhere I can easily find again.

One of the relatively few kottke.org posts I remember without having to hunt around for it (which is ironic, considering) is this one about Dick Cavett and compartmentalized memory. Cavett had a really hard time remembering who his guests were on past shows.

A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

It’s the same with me, as I replied in that post:

If you were to ask me tonight what I’d posted to kottke.org today, I doubt I could tell you more than one or two items (out of the seven to nine items I post during a typical day). When I see friends outside of work, they sometimes remark on stuff I’ve posted recently and it usually takes me a few moments to remember what it is they’re referring to.

Rereading Cavett’s mention of “the live performer’s divided brain” got me thinking about how the way I produce kottke.org every day and lately how it feels more like a performance. I talked about this a little in that interview with NiemanLab:

The blog is half publication and half performance art, because when I wake up in the morning I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about. There’s no editorial calendar or anything. I go online and I see what’s there, I pick some stuff, and I do it, and at the end of the day, I’m done. I come up with a publication on the fly as a sort of performance.

So to sum up…The Aristocrats! (Wait, what were we talking about? I can’t remember…)