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Omnipresent, the digital amplifies our external memories, at the risk of diminishing our biological memories.

How to compensate for the deficiencies of our limited, forgetful biological memory, as labile and perishable as the brain tissue that hosts it?

The question was already tormenting our ancestors. In response, they invented systems for externalizing their knowledge. First in the form of a collective, oral memory, transmitted between generations. Then "there were major breakthroughs such as writing, printing, radio or television", summarizes Francis Eustache, neuropsychologist (Inserm-EPHE-University of Caen). So many external relays to preserve and amplify our memories.

Faced with the soft matter of the brain, computer hard drives and the cloud now offer almost unlimited storage capacity. We're assisting "an explosion of the externalization of our memory without any equivalent in all the history of humanity", raises Francis Eustache in My memory and the others (Le Pommier, to be published on September 11, 176 p., 17 euros).

Resource Substitution

How will our societies adapt to this digital upheaval? Isn't there a risk of a perverse effect: instead of an enrichment of our social memory, a weakening of our cognitive functions?

Worry is far from new. Already for Socrates, writing was a "pharmacon" : a remedy but also a poison, which certainly corrects the faults of memory, but weakens it at the same time. At IVe century before our era, Plato relayed this threat: "This invention, by exempting men from exercising their memory, will produce oblivion...", he writes in Phaedra. "Plato screwed up: the effort of writing or reading, on the contrary, leads to an effort of memory", Judge Francis Eustache.

Moreover, its social diffusion has been very gradual, unlike the sudden eruption of the Internet. “With the Internet, the danger is there: computers and smartphones make information accessible to everyone. However, it is very difficult to measure the impact of the Internet on our brain. » A study, however, marked the spirits. Psychologist Betsy Sparrow, from Columbia University (New York), submitted students from an American university to difficult questions. Result, published in 2011 in Science : as a priority, these young people – although educated – used the Internet, rather than their own cognitive resources.

The danger of screens

" That causes a problem. The approach should be the opposite: to have free will, discernment, we should build an internal memory and call on it. If we totally depend on an external memory, we become empty shells! », believes Francis Eustache. “The collective management of traces has become an object of industrial commerce”, warns the philosopher Bernard Stiegler in memory and oblivion (The Apple Tree, 2014).

This trade is controlled by search engines. However, these systems prioritize the information “according to economic imperatives, and no longer noetic ones [of pure knowledge]. These machines forget in some ways less and less, but in another way they make us more and more forgetful, because we are dependent on them. - and this because they prioritize and organize according to procedures which escape us more and more”. For example, “accepting Facebook's conditions means accepting being stripped of its archives”. It also points to a risk of “proletarianization of our internal functions of perception, intuition, understanding and imagination”.

Don't we say "surf the internet" ? "The more the information is processed on the surface, the more we risk not memorizing it", notes Francis Eustache. In addition, excessive use of screens alters the duration or quality of sleep, and therefore our cognitive abilities. Another risk: the impoverishment of our social and family relationships.

Last trap, finally: defeatism and the refusal of progress. So, what antidotes to digital? “A therapy constituted by savoir-vivre, know-how and spiritual knowledge”, dream Bernard Stiegler.

Source: ©  Is our brain weakened by the Internet?

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