Is the Internet Replacing Your Memory?

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Updated: 1/30/2012 2:08 pm

July 14, 2011 -- Google, Facebook, Internet Movie Database, and many other sources of information on the Internet are changing the way in which we remember.

Whether it's an actor's name that is on the tip of your tongue, or even a loved one's birthday, all you have to do is type in some key words and you often can have your answer.

As a result of this instant access, growing numbers of us may actually be outsourcing our memories. It's called the "Google effect," and it is documented online in the journal Science.

"Google is just another form of external memory," says Betsy Sparrow, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University in New York City.

Most of us have some go-to experts for this topic or that. For example, you may go to your husband if you need information on sports, a co-worker for cooking advice, and a best friend to remind you of upcoming birthdays or college memories.

These people serve as our external memory for choice topics, she says. Search engines, however, are akin to having a really well-rounded phone-a-friend if you were a contestant on the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

"The Internet is much more ubiquitous," she says. "You can find anything at any time very quickly with a lot less effort," Sparrow says.

As a result, "we do have a little bit of a dependence on it, and we expect to get information when we want to know it," she says.

Internet's Impact on Ability to Recall Facts

Sparrow and colleagues conducted four experiments to see how our reliance on search engines or smart phones affects our ability to recall. In one of the experiments, students typed in answers to trivia questions. Some thought their work would be saved while others thought it would be deleted. Participants who thought their information would be erased remembered more than those who thought they could just hit "save."

During another experiment, volunteers were told that all of the information they typed into the computer could be saved, and they were given generic file names such as facts and data. They were then asked to write down on a sheet of paper as many of the answers as they could remember and in which folders the information was stored. Participants were more likely to remember where the information was stored than the actual information.

"I was surprised by the magnitude of the difference between prioritizing where to find things over the things themselves," Sparrow says. This epitomizes the so-called Google effect because we now tend to remember where things are and how to find them as opposed to the actual information.

This shift away from memorizing may ultimately help people improve their comprehension and become better learners, she says.

"Memory is so much more than memorization," she says. The Google effect may allow us to free up more space on our internal hard drives and focus on processing as opposed to memorizing.

Neuropsychologist Mark Mapstone, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., isn't sure the Google effect is such a good thing for our memories.

"This is not as good for us from a brain perspective," he says. "If you download your information to a device, you are not using your brain to make connections as you should be."

That said, "When you don't burden your memory with rote remembering, it does free up activity for more complex thinking," he says.

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