Memory and Motive

Lately I have been reading books exclusively from the local library. This presented a strange predicament. I have to constantly restrain myself from the usual habit of making notes in the margins. Curbing this marginalia presented me with a different yet familiar way of remembering a book's content.

I resorted to finding a passage, copying it into an editor, and mulling it over. Then I would write around the passage until a composition started to form. The piece would then be published on a personal or internal work blog. In doing this I found myself having a better impression of what I found interesting in reading the book than mere marginalia ever provided. But then it hit me. Marginalia wasn't useless. If all I did was make notes within in a book, I couldn't remember a thing. It was only when that marginalia was used in published content did I better recall a book's content.

Why was this the case?

Oliver Sacks' posthumously published The River of Consciousness contains a fascinating essay on Freud's early neurological research. Sacks hits upon a development in Freud's early writings – realizing the strong connection between memory and motive:

At a higher level, Freud regarded memory and motive as inseparable. Recollection could have no force, no meaning, unless it was allied with motive. The two had always to be coupled together [...]

This relationship accounts for strange lapses of recollection:

The inseparability of memory and motive, Freud pointed out, opened the possibility of understanding certain illusions of memory based on intentionality: the illusion that one has written to a person, for instance, when one has not but intended to, or that one has run the bath when one has merely intended to do so. We do not have such illusions unless there has been a preceding intention.

I often feel a variation of this on Twitter. My intention is to remember the content of a tweet, so I retweet or favorite it. Soon I find myself forgetting what the tweet even contained in the first place. This was an illusion of memory based on the supposed motive in the favorite and retweet. My memory could not keep up with my intentions. How odd then, that the relationship between memory and motive feels stronger with blogging. The motive of writing about what you've read somehow reinforces your memory of it. I've seen this sentiment expressed elsewhere on the web, especially in this post from Bix:

One thing I've noticed lately is that if I save links to blog about rather than links to “read later” (and they are right when they ask how often it seems like we are saving links to forget to read), I end up not only reading more of them but also creating a record of having done so.

This difference between “links to read later” and “links to blog about” can be explained by this relationship between memory and motive. “Links to read later” creates the illusion of motive. Memory, however, lags behind, becoming the “links to forget to read.” On the other hand, “links to blog about” creates another mode of intentionality, reinforcing the memory of what one reads. That tighter loop creates more opportunities for reading, more opportunities for blogging.

But what is the motive behind blogging? Reasons abound, but I think Sacks gets to the core of it in another essay in The River of Consciousness, “The Creative Self”:

What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one's own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one's own.

The web is still a very young medium, and it has been influenced more than anything else by print media design. There is so much more that can be done with text on a screen than is being done today. Citations, drawing, chat, speech-to-text. There are opportunities everywhere, and the bar is low! If we are serious about unlocking the value of knowledge we should consider how to improve every part of the knowledge production stack, and that includes reading. As Laurel Schwulst says: “Imaginative functionality is important, even if it’s only a trace of what was, as it’s still a sketch for a more ideal world.”