In April 1929, as reported in this week’s issue of The New York Times, a journalist from a Moscow newspaper turned up in the office of Dr. Alexander Luria, a neuropsychologist, complaining of an unusual problem, which was simply that he never forgot anything. When Dr. Luria tested the man, he found that he was able to easily recall long strings of numbers and words, foreign poems and scientific formulas. Decades later, the man was still able to effortlessly recall all of these things. Yet there was one significant problem, which was that he had a hard time understanding abstract concepts.
If there is indeed a certain inverse relationship between the ability to retain specific facts and information, and our capacity for abstract thought, then this is something that needs to be investigated in our current digital age, one in which we are endlessly inundated with facts and information coming at us on our phones and PCs. In short, is our ability to retain specific information, or to know know how to come in contact with it by employing various search engines and websites in effect hampering our ability to think abstractly to the point where we may be significantly losing our capacity for abstract thought simply because we are no longer focusing on it to the degree which we did formerly?
Yet that may not be the real problem. Our capacity to think abstractly is significantly related to how well our long-term memories can retain the facts and information that we use for abstract thought. And although the storage capacity of our long-term memories is veritably limitless, the storage capacity of our short-term memories has specific limitations, ones related to how our working memories take in information. And as those limits are approached or passed, our short-term memories lose their capacity to effectively take in facts and information which they can then pass onto our long-terms memory.
So the problem with Dr. Luria’s patient’s inability to engage in abstract though may not have been that there was anything the matter with his capacity for abstract conceptualization. Instead, it may have simply been that his short-term memory had been inundated with so many facts and so much information that he wasn’t able to pass these on to his long-term memory, where he could then use these to think abstractly. And in considering this unusual incident concerning thought and memory from another age, it may not be so far-fetched to consider its specific implications for our own.
Like the patient who was losing his ability to conceptualize, might we in our current digital age be losing our capacity for abstract thought simply because we are overwhelming our short-term memory with an amount of facts and information to which it had formerly not had to contend, and by which it is becoming easily overwhelmed? And so likewise are we diluting our long-term memories in a manner in which they don’t have access to the necessary amount of information which we need to think abstractly?
In a cyber age which is growing and expanding exponentially, this would appear to be something which we all need to seriously consider; this potential loss of our capacity for abstract thought. For ultimately, this would affect so many different areas of our lives, from our capacity for scientific exploration to our comprehension of great works of art and literature to our ability to remain psychologically free in a world that is now largely being constructed by the algorithms inside our digital devices. In addition, abstract thought has always been the basis of the growth of human intelligence and innovation throughout mankind’s historical development. Without it, we would almost certainly regress as a species.
Lyn Lesch’s upcoming book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be available later this Fall.