A Memory Shortcut, With a Little Help From Friends

A Memory Shortcut, With a Little Help From Friends

“Always remember everything,” my mother is fond of saying.

Of course, as she knows, this is impossible, even with advanced memory techniques. That’s why we take notes and use calendars. These are components of our external memory, which are parts of our extended minds.

That your mind may not be entirely housed within your skull may be difficult to grasp. In their seminal paper, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers made the case that some functions we perform with other objects should be considered on par with thought that occurs in our brains. Using pen and paper to help perform a calculation is one example. Many people, myself included, manipulate words on a page (or the digital equivalent) to figure out what they think about a topic or to develop an argument.

That the communication channels between paper (or screen) and brain involve vision and the movement of fingers rather than only the firing of neurons makes not a whit of difference, Mr. Clark and Mr. Chalmers argue. The end result is the same as if we had done the entire calculation or written the entire essay in our heads.

“What matters is not where stuff is encoded, or in what medium, but the uses to which it can readily be put,” Mr. Clark said. Working on a computer offers an analogy. “It doesn’t really matter whether some piece of information is stored on your hard drive or in the cloud, as long as it’s usually ready for access when the need is there.”

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