Friday 26 August 2016

7 ways the brain loses or distorts knowledge

There are seven ways by which an individual forgets, doctors or otherwise overwrites their memories, and through which their knowledge gets lost.

Would you store your documents in a system that;
  • Begins to lose them as soon as they are filed
  • Never stores many of them properly in the first place
  • Often won't let you find them when you need them
  •  Returns results that are wrong
  •  Allows documents to be falsified, and 
  •  Gradually adjusts all the documents to fit what you currently believe?  

No you wouldn't, but that's how your memory works - the system in which you store tacit knowledge.

The human brain, despite its many remarkable features, is not great at retaining detail in the long term. A series of posts on the Farnham Street blog (posts one, two and three) reviews a book by Daniel Shachter called "the seven sins of memory - how the mind forgets and remembers".

For those of us in Knowledge Management, this is crucial stuff. We often assume that the majority of organisational knowledge is held in the minds of individuals, and there are many people who will argue that knowledge is ONLY in people's minds, and becomes information once recorded (an old but ultimately unresolvable argument).

But is it safe to store knowledge in brains? Here are 6 ways in which brains lose this knowledge.

  • Transience - the issue of the forgetting curve. As the blog says - 
"Soon after something happens, particularly something meaningful or impactful, we have a pretty accurate recollection of it. But the accuracy of that recollection declines on a curve over time — quickly at first, then slowing down. We go from remembering specifics to remembering the gist of what happened ... What we typically do later on is fill in specific details of a specific event with what typically would happen in that situation".
  • Absent-mindedness - the process whereby the memory is never properly encoded, or is simply overlooked at the point of recall, and never transferred from short-term to long-term memory.  When your attention is divided, you never store the memory in the first place.
  • Blocking - the process where you know you know something, but you can't recall it. "It's on the tip of my tongue" you say, but you still can't recall the knowledge you know that you know.
  • Misattribution - where you recall something that is actually wrong. For example, I prided myself in being able to remember word for word (in Norwegian) the introduction to a Norwegian Christmas TV serial from the 1990s.  Then I found it on Youtube, and discovered I was almost 100% wrong in what I remembered.  Misattribution is what causes eyewitness testimony to be so dangerous.
  • Suggestibility - the way in which someone or something can implant false memories in your mind (a very disturbing phenomenon).  As the blog says, "Suggestibility is such a difficult phenomenon because the memories we’ve pulled from outside sources seem as truly real as our own".
  • Bias - the way in which you gradually filter your memories to become consistent with your current worldview and with your personal "narrative".  There are in fact 4 biases that we are prone to when editing our memories: Consistency and change bias, hindsight bias, egocentric bias, and stereotyping bias.
  • The "seventh sin" on the list is Persistence - the way in which unpleasant memories can persist, despite our attempts to forget. Although this is not a failure of memory, the unpleasant and persistent memories may come, through persistence, to override other memories, thus giving a distorted picture. 

How can Knowledge Management help?

Knowledge management has to have solutions to these issues, as they are real and pervasive. Some of the solutions are as follows.

  • Team reflection processes, such as After Action review and Retrospect, are opportunities for a team to review and rehearse what happened in an activity or project. By talking together, they fill in the gaps caused by absent-mindedness, and help cement the memories deeply enough to combat some (but not all) of the transience.  AARs and Retrospects should become a habit in the organisation, and should be held as soon as possible after the activity in question, before transience sets in. 
  • Team logging - perhaps through the use of a project blog or similar, allows the blog posts to act as an aide-memoire, thus avoiding misattribution, suggestibility and bias.
  • Rehearsal through conversation - perhaps through conversations in a community of practice, keeps knowledge fresh and avoids many of the time-related aspects of knowledge loss. Ensure your community discussions are open to all, so all practitioners get constant exposure to discussion and exercise their memories on a daily basis.
  • Codification - imperfect as codification is, it is the only way to retain details in the long term and avoid all of the 7 issues mentioned above. 
 Make sure your Knowledge Management Framework includes team reflection, logging, conversation and codification in their appropriate places. Don't rely on the human memory as a long term knowledge store, given it's seven modes of failure. 

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