Guest post: Are we outsourcing the human mind?

In my parent’s schooling they had to memorize poems and other great works. In my schooling it was mostly dates and places. Today memory has been outsourced to Google…

Guest blogger: Tyler Barrett

So wrote Tyler Barrett on a friend’s Facebook post about The Memory Code. Tyler is Chief Puzzler at Outside the Box Productions, a teaching organization based in Sedona, Arizona. He is also a psychologist, magician, musician, author and teacher. I asked him to expand on these ideas, and he wrote:

We are slowly but surely “outsourcing the human mind.” It started with the invention of the electronic, hand held calculator. In one fell swoop we really didn’t need to know how to do math in our heads. We no longer needed to memorize times tables or any equations. We had a machine to do it for us. Then came the cash registers that figured out what change the customer should get back when tendering a $20. We now have automobiles that can almost drive themselves. Our smartphones can tie us into Google and the web, and they can be voice controlled. And of course we have hand held translators, so we don’t have memorize/learn any other languages than our own.

The big question is, what’s left in our heads and what do we do with it? Do we become more or less creative? It’s been said that Einstein couldn’t/didn’t remember his phone number, because it cluttered up the pure space in his mind where he was working out his theories. It is some of the higher cognitive functions that are being outsourced. The more ancient parts of our brains are still with us.

So we will still be driven and motivated by our emotions. We haven’t yet figured out how to outsource how we know what is “fair”, “right or wrong” “good or bad”. We also haven’t outsourced religion (based on emotionally held beliefs). So we are verging more and more on a “lower” (more animal, more basic) form of creature more driven by feelings and internet driven biases, more tribal and alas, more confrontational. Many today think (believe) technology is the answer to all of our problems. I fear it isn’t .

Tyler Barrett

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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

13 thoughts on “Guest post: Are we outsourcing the human mind?”

  1. Nice analogy on outsourcing our mind to Google. I’ve never thought of it like that before. You go me thinking about it now.

    Here’s a quote allegedly from Einstein that slightly mirror the sentiment, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

    We might have a future generation of people who can’t count, can’t remember anything, and who can’t think. Sad.

    1. Thank you for that comment, Cathy. I agree it is thought provoking. I suspect that Einstein didn’t say the quote, but it is nevertheless of interest to consider. Socrates had a similar fear about writing, as quoted via Plato (socrates didn’t write). The following is part of Socrates’ reproach in The Phaedrus that the written word is the enemy of memory. In the dialogue, Socrates recounts the story of the god Theuth, or Ammon, who offers the king Thamus the gift of letters:

      “for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

      I would take the optimistic road and say that these fears are probably overstated, but not to be ignored. Now that I am using the indigenous memory systems and can see the way they ground information and enable you to see patterns and a much bigger picture, I am convinced that we have lost a great deal by losing the memory skills. If we outsource to Google, then we will only know what we look up. And we will only look up what we know exists in the first place.

      If you have further thoughts on the issue, please add them here. I am so wrapped up in the research that I have a feeling a lot of my opinions are now a tad biased!


      1. I didn’t know that story about Socrates and Plato. Really, an eye (or rather, brain) opener for me.

        I guess, somewhere deep within us, we are kind of scared of new ‘technology’ whether writing (in the case above), Google or whatever new technology will be discovered in the future. Maybe because it is robbing us the ability to be true to our true nature.

        And if these are helping us achieve ground-breaking advances, then maybe ‘outsourcing the mind’ to technology is where the future is going.

        1. I am convinced that we can have both – the advantages of new technologies and the advantages of using our memories fully. We can have everything! 🙂

  2. Lynne – The Memory Code is fabulous. More comments later. For now . . .
    Paul – An uncle of mine was a bookies assistant in the 1950s – he kept tallying the takings so the bookie could make all-important snap decisions. The uncle summed pages of L-s-d (pounds, etc) with a sweeping glance, but moving from bottom to the top of the page. I’m reasonably certain of that, having briefly mastered it – just for fun.

    1. Thank you for your comment on The Memory Code.

      I love the story of your uncle. This idea of outsourcing thinking is really intriguing. Thank you.


    2. Cedric. I believe about your uncle. The bookmakers “pencilers” were legendary and awesome in keeping track of the bets and the changing weight of the “odds”.
      Similarly there were legendary “tallymen” on weighbridges and in bulk stores etc. One I heard of could do weighbridge dockets on both sides using both hands. !

      All of which adds to the realisation of what the mind can do. I play the trumpet. The human memory thing that amazes me is classical concert pianists?

      1. Paul, I have a friend who was a bookie’s penciller, and I agree. Amazing, and more on the brain side, less in the helping artefact (although the pencil must be part of it!)

        I guess the calculator is on on end of this outsourcing spectrum, and the penciller’s brain is close to the other. In between I would put some amazing performances I have seen from traders using an abacus – part in-brain training, part external memory placeholder.

  3. The cognitive anthropologist Edwin Hutchins and others have written about this in the distributed/situated/extended cognition literature. Hutchins’ interests overlap with Lynne’s — he studied the amazing navigation skills of the Trobriand Islanders (see list below — I have included just the Hutchins ones). Hutchins (1984) says:
    “Micronesian navigators routinely make voyages across large expanses of open ocean. To do this, a navigator must judge both the direction in which he is sailing and the distance he has travelled. The rising and setting points of the stars (and other cues) provide instantaneous information about direction, but distance can only be judged by integrating velocity-related information over time. Micronesian navigators judge distance in a way that seems odd. When they are out of sight of land, they imagine that the canoe is stationary and that the islands move back past them. For each voyage, they ‘attend’ to an island off to the side of the course which is out of sight over the horizon. As they sail, they imagine the island moving back along the horizon changing in bearing until it is imagined to be under the bearing it is known to have from the destination island. Then they know they are near their destination. There is good reason for using a frame of reference whose origin is defined by the boat. We show how it finesses a perceptual paradox — the rising and setting points of the stars do not exhibit motion parallax.”
    He also writes about the interactions of pilot with cockpits.

    Hutchins (2011) notes that seeing constellations is cultural:
    “Cultural practices shape active sensing and ways of seeing the world by
    highlighting what to attend to and what to see when so attending … [while a star has an independent existence] a constellation exists only by virtue of someone enacting it via a cultural practice that allocates visual attention in a particular way (Hutchins 2008) … Stars and planets have an existence independent of people. Constellations do not. While an eye can register a pinpoint of light, seeing that pinpoint as a star is a cultural accomplishment. To see a star as a sun like our own, or see our sun as a star, is a product of a more recent set of cultural practices [including telescopes].”

    Psychologists also say that couples ‘outsource’ to each other not only tasks but knowledge, and this constitutes a large part of the grief of death and separation — half your brainpower is lost because (e.g.) “I can never find anything around the house — [partner] was always the one who did [xyz]”. The grief of loss of partner is made sharper by the loss of half your shared cognitive capacity.

    As for reasoning and emotion, I think there is a sense in which (‘lower’) emotional work has traditionally been outsourced to women, and (‘higher’ because power-based) authority has been outsourced to men — which goes some way to explaining the tenacity of male dominance in authoritarian, hierarchical religions such as those of the ‘ people of the Book’ (interesting literacy-power link here) — Islam, Judaism and Roman Catholic church, and in authority-based professions such as law (exercising LOGOS – the law/the Word – a preference for treating this cognitive function as superior is also cultural). Thus these religions also split off their power/authority function from their mystical/esoteric/secret side, which are not accessible to the run-of-the mill followers governed by the religion’s power structures (I think all the great religions except Buddhism have this split – and Buddhism is more like a philosophy. Think whirling dervishes, the Kabbalah, and Christian mystics (which includes women, unlike the power-side).)
    There is a hint in Tyler’s piece that he accepts the old Cartesian split between rationality (‘higher’) and emotion (‘lower’) but these functions appear to be interdependent — emotion is increasingly being shown by cognitive science to PRECEDE rationalisation, which depends on it to make decisions (counter-intuitively, rational reasoning is basically rationalisation after the emotional switch has been thrown). (See Damasio, A. R. (1995). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. London, Picador) and the case study on Phineas Gage.

    The upshot is that making a ‘rational decision’ to ‘retain and enhance’ whatever abilities we kid ourselves are held inside our own individual skulls is doomed to failure, because (Cartesian dualism notwithstanding) we are not in fact separate from the world. The cultures studied by Lynne had a better idea than we do about some of these things.

    HUTCHINS Ref list
    See also Andy Clark (1997) in Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA, M IT Press)
    Bender, Andrea, Edwin Hutchins and Douglas Medin (2010). ‘Anthropology in Cognitive Science’, Topics in Cognitive Science 2(3): 374–85.
    Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins and David Kirsh (2000). ‘Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research’, ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) archive 7(2): 174–96.
    Hutchins, Edwin (1980). Culture and Inference: a Trobriand Case Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    — (1983). ‘Understanding Micronesian navigation’, in D. Gentner and A. Stevens (eds), Mental Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 191-226.
    — (1996a). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    — (1996b). ‘Organising work by adaptation’, in J.R. Meindl et al. (eds), Cognition Between and Within Organisations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 368–404.
    — (2005). ‘Material anchors for conceptual blends’, Journal of Pragmatics.
    — (2010). ‘Cognitive Ecology’, Topics in Cognitive Science 2(4): 705–15.
    — (2011). ‘Enculturating the Supersized Mind’, Philosophical Studies 152(3): 437-46.
    — (2014). ‘The cultural ecosystem of human cognition’, Philosophical Psychology 27(1): 34-49.
    Hutchins, Edwin and Geoffrey Hinton (1984). ‘Why the islands move’, Perception 13(5): 629–32.

    1. What a fascinating comment, Trischa. Thank you so much for taking to time to compose it. I shall follow up on the references. I had never thought about couples ‘outsourcing’ knowledge to each other, but the more I think about it, the more I am aware that I do exactly that.

      I love all the talk about the Polynesian navigators. I found that one of the most fascinating aspects of the research. There are so many directions from my current research snd The Memory Code that I want to follow, I am just recording them all for when my world settles a little. I have copied your comment into that document which holds all the things that I want to explore properly when time permits. I really appreciate you including the references. It will be lovely when I can get back into my studio and settle to serious research again.

      Thank you again,


  4. PS. My father used to add up long columns of Pounds Shillings and Pence ( with 20 shillings to a pound and 12 pence to a shilling) by rolling a round ruler down the 3 columns at once and adding it up in his head, ie 125pounds 9 shillings and 10 pence plus xxxxx etc and then just write the complete answer at the bottom. Interrupt him and prepare to die ! 🙂

    1. What interesting comments, Paul. My first degree was electrical engineering. I used log tables and a slide rule, but we were always taught to estimate to avoid those horrid errors of magnitude. Great memories. There was also a degree of understanding that was lost with calculators. But also gains.

      There are memory tricks for calculations, but what you are suggesting is far more intriguing – retaining the calculating skills as a form of memorised knowledge. That is a really interesting idea. Lots of indigenous cultures memorise their technologies in song – ironmaking, preparing deadly cycads for eating … Why not calculating skills? What an intriguing idea. I shall ponder on it when I get a chance. So much fun to be had.

      Thank you!


  5. We ran into this issue a lot as Land Surveyors in the 70s as electronic calculators etc became common. Prior to that our computations were done by use of trigonometry and logarithm tables and hand cranked calculators. But because the old calculations were so laborious and one had “invested” so much time in them we had a big focus on estimating , because the easiest and most embarrassing or expensive mistake to make was one of magnitude. Errors of magnitude are still deadly, for example injecting 200ml of a strong medication instead of 10. A Slide Rule was a great tool for engineers and all, but there you absolutely had to know where the decimal points sat. As a surveyor in the field I soon learned to estimate the size of a big mineral or soil stockpile by considering what looked like average length and height etc and maybe the shape … is it like a cone ? etc. Some of the old hands in earthworks, even machine operators were uncanny in their ability to estimate.

    Perhaps we should look at retaining and enhancing the calculating ability to estimate to a high degree of skill, thus using the computing tools for speed and accuracy, but always having in humans “the knowledge”.

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