Cognitive Interdependence - Part 1

Much of my interest in my PhD has centered around one concept, transactive memory systems. This is essentially, the shared understanding of who knows what within a group or couple. The idea is that if you know what the people around you know then you can access their information easily as long as you retain the reference to that information. As an undergraduate I was a research assistant on an experiment that was exploring this concept and I have been fascinated ever since. Before a more thorough explanation, an example.

Think of a bookshelf that has a bunch of volumes on it. From where you are standing, you can see the names of the books, the author, and the basic size, shape, and color of the books. If you were to choose out any one of those volumes, you could take some time and memorize the entirety of its contents. If you placed the book back on the shelf, you could use it to refresh your memory, but it isn't nearly as valuable now that you have memorized it. You have exerted an amount of effort to internalize all of the knowledge in the book so that you now have quick access to it in your own internal memory.

Let's say that you just memorized a book on philosophy that describes the author's belief that all scientific study should be grounded in religion. You're interested in what another author might have to say about the subject, so you start scanning the bookshelf. But, why are you scanning the bookshelf? The topic is fairly complex so what are you looking for as you visually scan through the titles and authors? The answer is that we all love to make categories in our head. This topic is in a couple of them so you scan looking for titles that match the topic, titles that match the category, and authors that match the categories, using an internalized store of information matching, let's say, Steven J. Gould with Science vs. Religion. Maybe you read a book of his at some point,...ah there it is Rocks of Ages. I don't have this book memorized like the other but I've tagged it in my brain as relevant for a set of categories. Since I know I have access to the book in this bookshelf and I have this set of tags, I don't need to memorize the book. I know that it will have some relevant information and (if I've skimmed the book before) I may have even stored where the most relevant information is in the volume.

This example suggests a few things. First that memorization is not that relevant, especially as bookshelves become searchable e-books and pdfs easily accessible from the internet. But what is important is knowing where to look, what to search for, and recognizing what is relevant. If you want to use an external memory storage device, it's only helpful if you can get the information you want out of it. If I hadn't read things by Gould before, or skimmed that one book, I might be at a bit of a loss. But I did remember well enough to draw the connection and find the information I needed it. Most of the time we don't need to look at the bookshelf to remember the information that we need. We do this search all the time,...but we do other searches a lot more often.

We are and have been surrounded by the largest storage devices known with searchable repositories for tens of thousands of years,...other people. I work in an office with 10 other people and I likely ask an average of 3 questions a day to someone. I certainly do more Google searches than that, but Google can't answer the questions I'm asking. I've learned that, you have too. The great thing about people too is that you don't even have to have the correct search query to get the feedback you need,...because as social animals, we are insanely developed. To make sure this post doesn't go on longer than need be, I hope you'll trust me that we are good at understanding questions and taking context into account.

I'm now going to tell another story, a true(ish) story that greatly influenced my trajectory for the last 4 years, and it all happened before I was born. A man stands in his home in Texas, but it's not his anymore. The living room is half barren, the half of the things that are his sit in the moving van outside. His wife, well soon to be ex-wife, is out of town at her parent's and doesn't want any of his things there when she returns. His books and papers pass by him, carried by the moving men. He holds the necklace he gave her for their last anniversary in his hands, she said she wanted that gone too, all the things he had given her. He was heartbroken, as she was as well. In this story, we don't know whose fault it was that they are getting divorced, maybe it is no one's fault. But after years together, the man and wife find themselves, suddenly, alone.

Months, maybe years later, the man has gotten passed the rawness of the experience, enough to begin noticing that he doesn't have nearly the free time he used to. He has a housekeeper who also prepares meals from time to time, but he always finds his weekends and evenings eaten away, and he doesn't know why. On this particular afternoon, the man, a professor, is preparing to go to a conference that weekend, the first since we last saw him. He grabs 2 suits from the closet and gives them a look over. The suits, wrinkled and with a few patches of dust and dirt definitely need to be dry cleaned before he presents his first new work in a year. But he freezes. He suddenly realizes that he doesn't know what drycleaner he as sent these suits to in the past. His wife had always dropped off the suits on her way to work. The memory is, of course, unpleasant and the feelings of regret and pain reemerge. But a lesser pain is there, a nagging pain that he hadn't been able to place for months and months. He felt like he no longer knew so many things.

Besides the dry cleaner, he had stooped to paying his housekeeper extra to do the grocery shopping because he could never find all of the things on his list. He had always done the shopping with his wife. He had been there when they would buy his favorite bread or cheese, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember where the things were. He doesn't know it but his ex-wife has found it so frustrating to not be able to find things at the store that she now drives further away to get to a new store where she has never shopped before. She still doesn't know where everything is, but for some reason it is just easier for her to find the things she needs.

The man's name was Daniel Wegner. He was a professor at Trinity University, a social psychologist that studied, among other things, how we form and retain memories. He had stumbled on a phenomena that he ended up calling transactive memory. As he and his wife lived, worked, and shopped together they had divided the cognitive labor required to go through life. They had implicitly divided up what things they remembered and what things they let the other remember. As long as they could access the other person, it had been a great experience. Collectively, they could easily recall a lot more information because they didn't attempt to remember the specifics of their partner's knowledge. What would the point have been? Wegner's wife always was able to take the dry cleaning so why did it really matter that he didn't know where the dry cleaner was. When they had divorced, however, not only was there a huge amount of emotions turmoil, the system that he and his wife had implicitly developed became useless, like broken hyperlinks on a website.

Tomorrow, I'll describe the details about his initial work.

*Wegner initially proposed the bookshelf example which I adapted in this post.
**This and following posts are based on second-hand accounts. Therefore, some personal information may not be accurate.