I was reading this really cool book chapter by Daniel Wegner, Toni Giuliano, and Paula Hertel called “Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships,” written in 1985.
Its main topic is best explained by an example. Consider a couple who has been together for a long while. We’ve just sat down in their living room, and have complimented their decorative stuffed goose.
“Lulu is in another room for the moment, and we happen to ask Rudy where they got the wonderful stuffed Canadian goose on the mantle. He says, “We were in British Columbia … ,” and then bellows, “Lulu! What was the name of that place where we got the goose?” Lulu returns to the room to say that it was near Kelowna or Penticton-somewhere along Lake Okanogan. Rudy says, “Yes, in that area with all the fruit stands.” Lulu finally makes the identification: Peachland.” (p257)
This story exemplified what’s called “transactive memory”, which is the means by which people store and retrieve group memories– collective memories that are shared across people. Through a process of interactive cuing (Lulu prompting Rudy prompting Lulu), the couple were able to retrieve a piece of information (“Peachland”) they probably couldn’t have retrieved on their own. The idea is that just like an individual may store memories in “separate” locations (I’m not talking neurally here, more mental processes), couples literally store memories in separate bodies, but have access to both because they each know what the other knows.
How cool is that? Purely for the purposes of memory capacity, it suggests we should all get ourselves in long-term, stable couples (and why should we limit it to couples? The more the better!) and then have these huge collective memories that we can access whenever all of those people are around.
The problem with this, and why Prof. Wegner and colleagues studied dyads / couples, is that there’s a lot of maintenance that goes into a shared memory system. On the one hand, you have to keep talking to each other to integrate each other’s knowledge. On the other, you each have to be living life independently enough that you have knowledge that you hold independently, and you won’t get bored talking to each other. (Being boring in a problem that this article actually discusses– people apparently don’t enjoy rehashing the same things over and over again and boringness is thus a threat to relationships.)
And of course, I can only imagine what it’d feel like to have this wonderful collective memory based on shared experiences, and then have it taken away someday.
But regardless, I find collective memory a fascinating idea. In fact, it’s kind of what makes society so exciting– we’re basically sharing a gigantic collective memory. As a colleague of mine was saying, “I don’t particularly care about the history of cricket, but I’m glad someone out there cares. I want someone like that to exist, to make sure that knowledge isn’t being lost.” What we’re doing when we’re specializing is creating this huge gigantic memory. Nowadays we don’t even have to create this memory only across people– we have written records, and an incredible retrieval system by way of internet databases and searching.
Fun reading, and a new perspective on information sharing in relationships. The authors suggest that this information sharing is one of the key components of relationships in general– and it does seem logical to me that the exchange of information is one of the most important parts of what makes people work.
Wegner, Daniel M., Toni Giuliano, and Paula T. Hertel. “Cognitive interdependence in close relationships.” Compatible and incompatible relationships. Springer New York, 1985. 253-276.