The Weird Power of “Transactive Memory”

We store a lot of our knowledge in people’s heads

Clive Thompson
6 min readJul 14, 2023


Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

In the last few months, I’ve occasionally been fumbling around for words. I’ll try to remember the name of a movie star or historical event or a book, and — it’s not there. I can’t pull it up.

What’s wrong with my brain?

Social isolation, that’s what. Since late April, I’ve been on the road doing a coast-to-coast cycling trip across the US.

I’m doing the ride solo, which means I’ve been far away from my usual daily social connections — most specifically, my wife, my kids, and my close friends.

And isolation, it turns out, can have an affect on your memory.

It’s because of a phenomenon known as “transactive memory” — our human penchant for storing information inside the minds of other people.

When those other people aren’t near you? Boom: Some of your memory is gone.

The concept of “transactive memory” dates back to work in the 1980s by the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.