Researchers: Search engines supplanting our memory

Search-engine users feel less need to remember things they can easily look up, researchers say

Ubiquitous availability of the Internet may be causing a shift in how much information we retain in our memories, researchers claim.

Because search engines such as Google and Bing are so readily at hand, through desktop computers and mobile phones, we feel less need to remember details that can be easily looked up, note researchers from Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard University.

They have published their study, entitled "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," in this week's edition of the journal Science.

"People worry about what our relationship to technology is doing to our cognition," said Betty Sparrow, a researcher at Columbia University who led the research. "They worry about looking up everything online and not remembering it all."

To probe the effects of this behavior, the researchers carried out a battery of tests with undergraduate students that closely observed what information they committed to memory and what information they didn't bother remembering, presuming that they could look it up on a computer should they need to refer to it later.

In one test, 28 participants were asked to read and retype items of memorable trivia, such as "Greenland is the world's largest island by area." Some of the participants were told the information that they typed in would be erased and others were told it would be saved on a computer. Then, they were quizzed on the material they retyped. Those that believed their material would be erased remembered more of the information than those who had assumed the material would be saved.

"Thus it appears that believing that one won't have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself," the paper stated. In other words, if someone knows that information may be found on the Internet, he or she may be less likely to commit that information to memory.

Another experiment was conduct to determine if people prefer to memorize the locations of where they could find data in favor of remembering the data itself. Here, 32 participants were presented with a number of statements, along with the names of folders in which these bits of information would be saved. Then, they were asked to recall as much of the information as possible and were then quizzed on which folder each piece of information was in.

Overall, participants were better able to recall which folder each bit of information was stored in than the information itself.

Such results shouldn't alarm people, Sparrow cautioned. "I don't think that the parts of our brain that can remember information are atrophied," she said. While the Internet is fairly new, the act of relying on external resources for memory is not new for humans. People have long relied on friends, co-workers and family to keep track of information that they themselves have forgotten. The researchers call this phenomena "transactive memory."

"We've always done this sort of thing, allowed certain types of information to be stored with other people," Sparrow said. "Computers and access to online information work in similar ways."

Sparrow may next investigate if people memorize different kinds of things now that search engines are capturing all the details of what they used to memorize. Freed from the burden of remembering specifics, people could possibly better understand the larger meaning of the material they learn.

"Will people who don't focus so much on remembering who, what and where be better at answering conceptual type of questions?" she said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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