The Pros and Cons of a Fuel Efficient Brain

Transactive dyadic memory Candice Condon3Your brain will only work as hard as it has to. And if it makes you feel any better, my brain is exactly the same. That’s the way brains work. They conserve horsepower until when it’s absolutely needed. In the background, the brain is doing a constant calculation: “What do I want to achieve and based on everything I know, what is the easiest way to get there?” You could call it lazy, but I prefer the term “efficient.”

The brain has a number of tricks to do this that involve relatively little thinking. In most cases, they involve swapping something that’s easy for your brain to do in place of something difficult. For instance, consider when you vote. It would be extraordinarily difficult to weigh all the factors involved to truly make an informed vote. It would require a ton of brainpower. But it’s very easy to vote for whom you like. We have a number of tricks we use to immediately assess whether we like and trust another individual. They require next to no brainpower. Guess how most people vote? Even those of us who pride ourselves on being informed voters rely on these brain short cuts more than we would like to admit.

Here’s another example that’s just emerging, thanks to search engines. It’s called the Google Effect and it’s an extension of a concept called Transactive Memory. Researchers Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel Wegner identified the Google Effect in 2011. Wegner first explained transactive memory back in the 80’s. Essentially, it means that we won’t both to remember something that we can easily reference when we need it. When Wegner first talked about transactive memory in the 80’s, he used the example of a husband and wife. The wife was good at remembering important dates, such as anniversaries and birthdays. The husband was good at remembering financial information, such as bank balances and when bills were due. The wife didn’t have to remember financial details and the husband didn’t have to worry about dates. All they had to remember was what each other was good at memorizing. Wegner called this “chunking” of our memory requirements “metamemory.”

If we fast-forward 30 years from Wegner’s original paper, we find a whole new relevance for transactive memory, because we now have the mother of all “metamemories”, called Google. If we hear a fact but know that this is something that can easily be looked up on Google, our brains automatically decide to expend little to no effort in trying to memorize it. Subconsciously, the brain goes into power-saver mode. All we remember is that when we do need to retrieve the fact, it will be a few clicks away on Google. Nicholar Carr fretted about whether this and other cognitive short cuts were making us stupid in his book “The Shallows.”

But there are other side effects that come from the brain’s tendency to look for short cuts without our awareness. I suspect the same thing is happening with social connections. Which would you think required more cognitive effort: a face-to-face conversation with someone or texting them on a smartphone?

Face-to-face conversation can put a huge cognitive load on our brains. We’re receiving communication at a much greater bandwidth than with text.   When we’re across from a person, we not only hear what they’re saying, we’re reading emotional cues, watching facial expressions, interpreting body language and monitoring vocal tones. It’s a much richer communication experience, but it’s also much more work. It demands our full attention. Texting, on the other hand, can easily be done along with other tasks. It’s asynchronous – we can pause and pick up when ever we want. I suspect its no coincidence that younger generations are moving more and more to text based digital communication. Their brains are pushing them in that direction because it’s less work.

One of the great things about technology is that it makes our life easier. But is that also a bad thing? If we know that our brains will always opt for the easiest path, are we putting ourselves in a long, technology aided death spiral? That was Nicholas Carr’s contention. Or, are we freeing up our brains for more important work?

More on this to come next week.

One thought on “The Pros and Cons of a Fuel Efficient Brain

  1. This left me with so many unanswered questions, but it did conjure up a relevant memory. I spent a lot of childhood at the library or reading books in general. Before the Internet, if I needed to find a thread of information, I had to sift through my mental catalog for a clue as to where I first read that piece of information or, if it was something I didn’t know, I had to read through and process a great deal of data in my search. Nowadays, I can just cut that entire process out and just Google anything.

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