It’s Possible to Be So Close to Another Person That You Start *Thinking* Together

an embroidered piece of art featuring the human brain
Image by Hey Paul Studios / CC BY

“We finish each other’s–”

“Sandwiches.”

Arrested Development (and later, Frozen)

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Have you ever been so close to someone that you knew what they were going to say next?

It turns out that scientists are researching this, why this happens, and what conditions make it more likely.

There’s a field of research in social psychology that studies distributed cognition, a phenomenon by which a person can not only access their individual knowledge but can effectively glean extra benefits from those who are in their social environment. No one is an island — or at least no one has to be.

Now, this isn’t like the magic telepathy of the movies — or anything quite so dramatic. You don’t develop a psychic link with other people or anything. But, for example, people can essentially learn to “think together,” in ways that don’t mimic but complement one another.

And in doing so they can recall more together than they would trying to remember things on their own. This is called transactive memory (first proposed by Wegner) and is a form of distributed cognition that describes collective remembering.

It would seem obvious in one sense, that working with other people would be the optimal path if we’re trying to recall information, but actually research has shown that shared remembering can be incredibly inefficient. Not everyone “thinks together” well.

Strong social bonds seem to be the key. Evidence of distributed cognition is particularly marked in people who spend a lot of time with one another and become emotionally close. It would seem that these factors make it more likely that we’ll come to rely on one another when it comes to assistance with everyday memory and problem-solving tasks — and yeah, “think together.”

Or to use a computing analogy, if you spend enough time with a person and socially bond, there’s some evidence that they become essentially another computer in your cognitive network, one which you can draw upon to access an additional storage, memory, and processing power (and vice versa).

Couples Who Stay Together, Think Together? Well… Kinda. Unless They’re Jerks or Checked Out or Something

Researchers are finding strong evidence of this particularly in couples in long-term relationships, who essentially inadvertently develop interconnected memory systems. There’s been a lot of movement in this area of research, but one study in particular (Harris, Barnier, Sutton, et al. ,2014) not only found evidence of long-term couples thinking together but also had some really interesting findings to narrow things down even further, conditions that made this more likely to happen and increase performance on tasks:

  • Couples who collaborated well in general took the day. The best performers came from couples in which both individuals not only actively participated but easily allowed their partner to have input into exercises did much better on tasks, as opposed to ones in which at least one half of the pairing was passive during tasks or critical of their partner.
  • Couples who rated their relationship intimacy as higher provided richer, more vivid descriptions (including sensory details) when recounting shared memories.
  • Older adults in the study seemed to do the most poorly on the tasks when individually completing them (consistent with the natural cognitive memory decline in older adulthood that’s been widely noted in cognitive research). And older adults when acting in couples also seemed to benefit most from transactive memory effects.

When it came to the third point regarding older adults, researchers wondered if this was evidence of a natural tendency to rely on others for distributed cognition as support to offset the natural changes that occur as we age.

“Maybe I can’t remember much on my own anymore, but by our powers combined!”

Something like that.

Possible Implications of This Research

It’s interesting research, and like all scientific study, it’s still ongoing. I’ll be interested to see where it goes in the future, what insights they make next.

I’d be personally interested to see if such effects could extend to a close-knit families (corporate studies haven’t found similar effects on most work teams, there doesn’t seem to be the deep social bond required, work spouse or not) — or in romantic and social interdependencies that are larger than the couple: for example, triads, quads, or larger polyamorous relationship systems (such as webs, polycules, etc.).

Breakups and the Transactive Memory Server Crash

I also am struck by what this could mean in terms of devastation to an individual in sheer cognitive terms (setting aside what is normally focused on, the emotional impact) when it comes to a divorce or the breakup of a long-term relationship in which people have learned effectively to “think together.”

Anecdotally, I found my own divorce quite disorienting. As my now-ex and I were both polyamorous and dated others for years before we separated from one another, I had other surviving relationships at the time of our split, ones I was still living with (as I lived with multiple partners at once). As such there was no break between serious relationships, no “I guess I’ll be alone for a while,” no “time to find myself.”†

I did find that while I still collaborated with those continued partners that I did have to readjust a lot in regards to how I managed my life. Some of this was logistically obvious — i.e., someone wasn’t physically there who had just been, and that changes things.

But in another sense, I really did feel like a part of myself was missing. Typically I’m a person with a rather sharp memory, but during this time I was uncharacteristically forgetful, absentminded. And it took a while for me to reorganize my thoughts, my feelings, my life to a point where I was comfortable again.

And in hindsight, it’s possible that I essentially had a transactive memory server crash (or at least get unhooked from the system), and as such, I was having to reorganize the way that I handled these tasks.

Or maybe it was the emotional shellshock doing it on its very own. I dunno. Interesting to think about anyway.

Cognitive Interdependence and Opening a Previously Closed Relationship

It’s also worth noting that some of the biggest challenges that face highly entangled couples who open their relationships revolve around the sudden demand upon them to act as autonomous agents (especially couples who date other folks separately, as individuals and not a package deal or unit). Instead of some sort of collective entity that shares a Facebook account, a dating profile — or, yeah, apparently even a brain.

Research like this does seem to stress that this kind of interdependence (regardless of how inconvenient it may provide in a polyamorous context, especially when the individuals in the couple are new to the relationship style) may not be some kind of attitude problem, but a natural side effect of cohabitation, nesting, and management of large life tasks (sharing finances, raising children, managing a household, etc.).

While this knowledge doesn’t provide an easy solution for those who wish to mitigate some of the effects (beyond avoiding such entanglements in the first place as some solo polyamorists advise), it does help to validate the difficulty of working through the phenomenon and consequently could help folks struggling with those things accept the phenomenon in a clear-eyed manner and have more self-compassion as they problem-solve.

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† As I mentioned in a previous article on the process of grieving from breakups in poly systems, the available empirical evidence actually points away from taking that being helpful (again). For example, one study found that people who have rebound relationships get over their ex-partner more quickly and feel more confident (as did this one). Not only that but the study also found that folks who tended to be emotionally stable were actually more likely to have a shorter time between one relationship’s end and another’s beginning.

Surprisingly, research has suggested that when it comes to moving on that focusing on something new actually helps. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, research has found that “rebounds” don’t seem to be any more prone to relationship instability than relationships started after a long break from dating…despite the very popular advice to take a break and work on yourself.)

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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