What’s Transactive Memory?

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Transactive memory is a form of memory that combines individual and group recall, relying on multiple people to remember distinct aspects of information. It can be leveraged in business, government, and personal relationships, and is studied by psychologists to understand intimacy and memory processing. Effective transactive memory relies on all three parts of the memory system: individual memory, external memory, and transactive memory. New Age spiritualists believe it to be an external memory stored in the cosmos.

Transactive memory is an interdependent form of memory that combines individual recall with systematic group recall. It often involves multiple people in a group remembering distinct aspects of information that together summarize a complete memory. Transactive memory is the antithesis of an independent memory, which relies on a person providing a complete recall.

The root of the word “transactive” includes the Latin prefix “trans” meaning “across” or “through”, thus highlighting that transactive memory is an expansive activity conducted across multiple minds than one mind. For example, a family remembering a ten-year summer picnic or family reunion may rely on siblings, cousins, grandparents, and aunts to piece together all the stories and situations from that day. The sum of these different memories collected from widespread sources would be an expression of transactive memory.

A group that participates in transactive memory can be as small as two people, known in sociological circles as a “dyad,” or as large as a corporation with hundreds or thousands of people. This type of memory can be leveraged in business or government to improve efficiency. Within personal relationships and social groups, transactive memory can prove to be a valuable bonding tool, both used spontaneously and informally, and as an invented archive of history, folklore and relics.

In transactive memory research, psychologists are able to study intimacy in relationships and how one person’s thoughts relate to or complement another’s. The study of transactional recall involves analyzing how bits of information are processed and stored in the human brain and how the brain connects disparate pieces of data to create a pattern. Psychologists and sociologists probing transactive memory are also trying to understand how these archived memories can be accessed efficiently for future use.

Researchers generally recognize that effective transactive memory relies on all three parts of the memory system and not just on group recall. The complete memory system consists of individual memory, external memory, and transactive memory. Individual memory is divided into three stages: encoding, information storage, and information retrieval. It is strongly influenced by a person’s memory capabilities, the spontaneous or deliberate associations made between information as the memory is being stored, and the presence of disconnected details that are stored with unrelated information. All of this contributes to the success or failure of an individual memory and ultimately to any transactional recall based on the collection of individuals.

External memory refers to the storage of data and events outside the human brain. People who write down details of events in diaries, notebooks, or a computer create external memory. Photographs, videos, music and other art forms, such as paintings, can also be used to encapsulate memories. Shopping lists, telephone directories and timetables also store details as part of an external memory. External memories are like computer backups; they provide cues to the human brain for remembering events that are not fully retrievable with the mind alone.
For transactional recall to work, it relies on the success of both individual and external memories. Encoding, storage, and accessing transactive memory are more deliberate and planned. For coding, a group can formally discuss what information the whole group needs to remember and who will be responsible for remembering different aspects of the information. In a business, a boss can assign specific people to remember dates, email addresses, and tasks that need to be completed. The storage method can also be planned, using a combination of external memory and people with excellent metamemory skills.

New Age spiritualists take the concept of transactive memory further, believing it to be an external memory stored in the cosmos and available to any human being who can access the group or universal mind. They believe this universal mind acts as a sort of omniscient data center, where people can get details about past lives, divine knowledge, and perhaps even the future. Transactional recall as a spiritual tool is a controversial proposition that suggests that people can tap into information or ideas that originate beyond their own experiences.

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