Dr Cathleen Cortis Mack is a senior research officer at the University of Essex and an expert on memory – her studies concern life logging and its impact on how individuals access their most treasured memories, and eliminate undesirable ones
Memories shape our entire world-view. Everything we think, everything we choose, every opinion we have is based on something we already know through experience. Every person's memories are also unique. You remind your friend of an episode you shared together and their memory of it could vary radically – not just in interpretation, but also in terms of what you considered fact (e.g. "We were in Gozo", "No ta, we were definitely in Marsaxlokk"). But these nuances of memory recall come into question when technology is entered into the equation.
Enter RECALL – an EU funded project focusing on how modern technology like smartphones can be used for life logging in order to augment human memory. Dr Cortis Mack forms part of this project's team, looking into how people use social media in memory recall.
"In general people are very aware of their memory limitations. The majority of participants who come to our lab for experimental studies are very quick to inform us that they think they don't have a good memory - in reality, they show average recall abilities. So it's no surprise that people have always looked for memory aids in forms of diary writing, keeping a calendar, and photo capture among others," she tells Lovin Malta.
Dr Cortis Mack's PhD explored immediate memory across domains, more specifically verbal and visuo-spatial immediate memory. In plain English – the difference between what you remember someone saying and what you remember seeing and feeling as a three-dimensional experience. There is an on-going debate in the academic world of memory as to whether verbal and visuo-spatial memory are two distinct memory stores.
Social media represents memories in a kind of flattened way – an abridged version. You don't get a transcript of what someone once told you, you just might get a few words from it presented in a hashtag format. You don't get the smell, temperature and spatial dimensions of being in a place, you just get a filtered image cropped out as a square picture. So how does this help people who already think they have bad memory, to remember more?
"Social media has radically changed the way we remember things. It almost acts as a proxy for our own memories. We don't need to remember anyone’s birthday or other special occasions, because Facebook automatically reminds us. This is paired with the fact that we now take loads of photos. But it's somewhat counter-intuitive, because research has shown that taking large amounts of photos of a particular event usually results in worse memory of it," she says.
"In order for memory to be properly augmented, an event needs to be properly 'encoded'. For example – it needs to be associated with an interesting fact, and then later appropriately reviewed. In this sense, features like Facebook memories are helpful as memory cues as they act as a form of ‘retrieval practice’. Seeing a photo of an event and making the effort to recall what the photo portrays should result in better memory performance for that particular event."
So in essence, social media can be responsible for people becoming lazy with their memory recall – relying on their mobile phone to store the memories they would otherwise have seriously digested. In her studies Dr Cortis Mack intends to delve deeper into our reliance on technology, and how it can affect our autobiographical memory, impacting the trust we have in our own memories.
"Social media has radically changed the way we remember things. It almost acts as a proxy for our own memories."Dr Cathleen Cortis Mack, University of Essex
So is social media better or worse for the maintenance of our memory?
"There are two diverging ideas as to the effect technology has on our memory. On the one hand the ease of using technology has encouraged to use it as a substitute to our own memory. On the other hand we can take advantage of lifelogging and technology to help us maximise our recall for different things," says Dr Cortis Mack.
"In this respect, technology such as wearable cameras coupled with daily retrieval practice, have been fruitful in helping patients with memory difficulties. So there are indeed benefits to using technology to augment memory – if it's used in a structured way."
Apart from human and social media, in Malta there seems to exist a third tier of memory – hearsay.
We live in a community that recycles first-hand, second-hand and even third-hand memories amongst intersecting social circles; passing round interpretations presented as facts from person to person until the original meaning of someone's memory becomes warped beyond recognition. Once someone has made up their mind about the way a scenario took place, it becomes very difficult for any kind of proxy – natural or technological – to push that image aside.
As Dr Cortis Mack has shown, the landscape of personal memory is rapidly changing and growing, both aided and hindered by technological memory aids. We seem to be amidst an invasion of memories – in our own brains, online, and from all the people around who are discussing and manipulating our own memories.
So will we ever be able to dig through all the murkiness and discover the truth – the actual memory? Technology might one day have the answer, or it might push us into a reality where memories are so filtered and packaged that it will resemble a dystopian Black Mirror episode. Till either happens, perhaps we should treasure the vagueness of memory. Maybe it's what makes it so fascinating – that we still don't know how to fully capture them.
The Recall project acknowledges the financial support of the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme within the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Commission, under FET grant number: 612933