Your Brain Lies to You

In this second post relating to a VT seminar I’m participating in on New Media, I wanted to return to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, “As We May Think,” to take a closer look at why we might need a memex – i.e., a memory augmentation – device.

In 2008, I read a New York Times Op-Ed by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt entitled “Your Brain Lies to You,” which broaden my understanding of the challenges I might face when trying to present new ideas to students; ideas which might at first run against long held beliefs. The problem with our brain rests in how it manages information. Unlike the memex device envisioned by Vannevar Bush (or a modern day computer), your brain does not record information in a way that it can be retrieved in its original form. In the words of Wang and Aamodt, “Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain … . But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.”

This phenomenon is known as source amnesia and can result in a person forgetting whether a statement is true. Thus, while you might initially discredit an idea form a non-credible source, the problem of source amnesia means that the original idea might gain credibility as you misremember where it came from. Another challenge is that we tend to fit new information into established mental frameworks. This means that we are likely to selectively accept and remember ideas that reinforce existing beliefs and reject and forget those that don’t. The question then, is what can be done to address these inherent problems in the way in which our mind works?

One possible solution is to associate a new, contradictory, perhaps, controversial idea to an emotion. In their Op-Ed, Wang and Aamodt discuss how ideas can spread by their emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits. In the classroom, when covering an idea that may be at odds with a student’s mental framework, one approach I have tried is to ask the student to imagine how their world would be different if the information were true. The trick is to try and create an emotional jolt that the student will remember in the future when confronted by the same contradictory information.

Another potential way to resolve this dilemma might be to adopt a technology platform that can help counteract source amnesia and one’s own mental frameworks. The new Google Glasses, demonstrated in the short video below, present a modern day example of a possible memex device.

While these glasses could be used as a memory augmentation device, the question is whether or how the recording/structured information would change, hopefully improve, your mental frameworks. A deeper question is whether such a technology could be used to enhance your intelligence/wisdom, or would it simply enable you to cheat the system in some way.

Finally, while watching the video above, I started to wonder what would happen if my students and I were to use this technology during a group discussion. The possibilities seem immense, even if a little scary. Perhaps, I’ll be inspired in the next two days and submit a proposal to be a Google Glass explorer.

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