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What Is Transactive Memory?

By Synthia L. Rose
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Transactive memory is an interdependent form of memory that combines individual recall with systematic group recall. It often involves several people in a group remembering distinct aspects of information that together sum up a complete memory. Transactive memory is the antithesis of an independent memory, which relies on one person providing complete recall.

The root of the word “transactive” includes the Latin prefix “trans” which means “across” or “through,” thus highlighting that transactive memory is an expansive activity conducted across several minds as opposed to one mind. For example, a family remembering a decade-old summer picnic or family reunion may rely on siblings, cousins, grandparents and aunts to pool all the stories and situations of that day. The sum of these diverse recollections gathered from widespread sources would be an expression of transactive memory.

A group participating in transactive memory can be as small as two people, known in sociological circles as a “dyad,” or as large as a society 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 recall can prove a valuable bonding tool, whether used spontaneously and informally or as a contrived storage of history, folklore and heirloom stories.

In researching transactive memory, psychologists are able to study the intimacy in relationships and how one person’s thoughts relate to or complete another’s. Study of transactive recall involves analyzing how bits of information are processed and stored in the human brain and how the brain links disparate pieces of data to create a schema. Psychologists and sociologists probing transactive memory also seek to understand just how these stored memories can be accessed efficiently for use in the future.

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 the individual memory, the external memory, and the transactive memory. Individual memory is divided into three phases: encoding, information storage, and information retrieval. It is greatly affected by a person’s memory skills, the spontaneous or deliberate associations made between pieces of information as memory is 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 any transactive recall relying on collection of individuals.

The external memory refers to the storage of data and events outside of the human brain. People who jot details of happenings in journals, on notepads, or on a computer are creating external memory. Photographs, videos, music and other forms of art, like paintings, can also be used to encapsulate memories. Even grocery lists, phone lists and schedules store details as part of an external memory. External memories are like computer backups; they provide prompts for the human brain to recall occurrences that are not fully retrievable with the mind alone.

In order for transactive recollection to work, it relies on the success of both individual and external memories. The encoding, storage and access for transactive memory are more deliberate and planned. For encoding, a group may formally discuss what information the entire group needs to recall and who will be responsible for remembering different facets of the information. In a business, a boss may assign specific people to remember dates, email addresses, and tasks that must be completed. The method of storage may also be planned out, using a combination of external memory and people with excellent metamemory skills.

New age spiritualists take the concept of transactive recollection further, believing it consists of 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 some kind of an all-knowing data center, whereby people can get details of past lives, divine knowledge, and perhaps even the future. Transactive recall as a spiritual tool is a controversial proposition that suggests people can draw on information or ideas that originate beyond their own experiences.

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