Wednesday 1 September 2021

3 cases where human brains are the best store for knowledge

I have long argued that the human brain is a poor long term store for Knowledge. Here are the three cases where it's the best store there is.

Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve, from wikimedia commons

The poor human brain gets a bit of a bad press at times. The cognitive biases that plague us all are becoming well known and popularised in many books, and we recognise the cognitive illusions that get in the way of effective use of knowledge, such as

With such illusions as these, and with the way memory decays over time (see graph to the right), can we trust the "knowledge" we hold in our heads?

However this book by Daniel Schacter makes the point that the human brain works marvellously well in getting us through life, by selecting automatically what we remember and what we don't.  Our brain has limitations, and with those limitations come trade-offs. One of the trade-offs our brain makes is to prioritize which knowledge to hold on to, and which to let go of. It must do this — we’d be overloaded with information without this ability. 

The brain has evolved to prioritize knowledge which is: 
  1. Used frequently 
  2. Used recently 
  3. Likely to be needed
These are the three cases where Knowledge Management can harness the brain as the most reliable store of knowledge. 
  1. Knowledge of tasks used regularly and frequently - part of your daily or weekly routine. If you conduct the task annually, maybe your brain is not the best store. For example, packing for a holiday. We do this once a year, but still forget to pack things, so a packing checklist can be a very useful aide-memoire.
  2. When something has happened recently, the knowledge in the brain is reliable. However peoples' memories fade within a matter of hours or days (the forgetting curve) so if the knowledge is important, then it makes sense to either repeat it to someone, or record it.
  3. When the knowledge is something we know we will need (and need soon) then we make an effort to remember, for example through spaced repetition or rehearsal.
This current and frequently used knowledge is best left in human brains, connected into Communities of Practice, where the knowledge can be shared, improved, discussed and kept fresh.  The community of practice can act as a super-brain, holding collective memories. 

Note that for critical or complicated knowledge, or under times of stress or lack of sleep, even these three criteria may not be sufficient. Aviation pilots, for example, may fly frequently, have flown recently, and know they will need to fly again, but will still use a checklist to augment their memory, as they know that the consequences of forgetting one detail may be catastrophic.

Also note that muscle memory may not have the same "forgetting curve". once you know how to ride a bike, for example, you never forget. You may feel "rusty" but you remember the basics.

The converse of the three cases above is that knowledge which is used infrequently, was used some time ago, and which we did not realise was likely to be needed, gets forgotten. This is exactly the knowledge which needs to be documented, lest we forget.

The occasional and infrequent knowledge should not be left in the human memory without augmenting this somehow through collecting, recording and structuring it in Knowledge Assets, so that it is given a shelf-life which the human brain cannot give. Again the community can play a role in building and maintaining these assets, and keeping them fresh and up to date.

Our responsibility as knowledge managers is to work out which knowledge to deal with through connection, and which through collection.

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