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Your Partner and You: One Shared Brain

An interesting idea that has recently emerged in psychology and cognitive science is the extended mind: the notion that your cognition is not merely “in your head,” but can extend to the world around you. Google presents a good example of this phenomenon. People are less likely to remember information when they know it is stored somewhere “outside” of their heads – particularly, a computer or the internet.1 Hence, we may not trouble ourselves in memorizing a recipe for a delicious dip simply because we know where we can find it online. Likewise, we probably don’t know many cell phone numbers because we know that they are readily available in our phone (although this may lead us to panic when our phone loses all that information).

The extended mind phenomenon also opens a door to another question: given that romantic relationships are characterized by relatively high degrees of self-other overlap,2 can your romantic partner serve as an extension of your own mind? That is, can your “other half” really be the other half of a brain that you two share? The answer seems to be “yes.”

In a classic study, Wegner, Erber, and Raymond3 investigated transactive memory, or the collective storage and retrieval of memories, in close relationships (“Honey, where was it again that we went on our first date?” Note: For the benefit of your relationship, we suggest remembering this info yourself). They assigned couples of romantic partners or strangers to memorize a list of words either freely (i.e., the couples memorized words as they wished) or systematically (i.e., each person was assigned a specific categories of words to memorize). This study yielded some interesting results. When memorizing words systematically, dyads of strangers recalled more words than romantic couples. When memorizing words freely, however, couples recalled more words than did strangers.

What separated the couples of romantic partners from the couples of strangers was the closeness, or self-other overlap, which they shared. This closeness allowed romantic partners to form a transactive memory system, or a “shared brain.” Each partner has implicit access to the “shared brain,” and contributes his or her expertise to the entire system. Still, we don’t recommend that you use this study as an excuse to bring your significant other with you to your next exam.

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1Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2012). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333, 776-778.

2Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 241-253.

3Wegner, D. M., Erber, R., & Raymond, P. (1991). Transactive memory in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 923-929.

Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.

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