It was interesting to read about the study, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner in Sciencexpress, suggesting Google is affecting human memory, and in fact, has become an “external memory for humans.”
Theories of memory differ in psychology and medicine, with psychology favoring cognitive theories and medicine favoring physical theories that rely on synapses between neuron cells. As a graduate student in psychology in the ‘80s, I did my thesis on memory and can give you a rundown on the cognitive theories at the time. The earlier theories suggested a stimulus-response bond for memory retention, with forgetting a function of the loss or weakening of previously made associative bonds due to decay or interference.
The newer theories were based on an information processing framework where memory associations were made in different levels of the brain as they processed information at increasingly higher levels of analysis, with deeper processing resulting in more lasting memories. Fast forward to the 21st century. Now, most people can go to Google for instant recall of facts they can’t remember. Therefore, it’s no surprise that researchers are looking for new cognitive theories of how memory works.
In conducting the above named study, the authors carried out several experiments to examine how the human brain uses memory differently when computers are involved. When you can access data anytime, anywhere on search engines like Google, why bother to do the work of processing information in your brain to remember? Most people are wired 24/7, so it’s no problem to make your cellphone or computer your second brain.
These researchers found that the use of computers with availability of instant access to data is having an effect on human memory, altering the way the brain functions. Part of the reason we don’t bother to remember everything is due to information overload. That, and the ability of Google to tell us what we need to know, has resulted in the Internet becoming an “external memory” for humans. That was the conclusion of the study, and I don’t doubt it.
“The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger,” the report reads. “No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue.” So true – I find myself looking up information I don’t have off the top of my head whenever the need arises. And I’m confident Google will come up with all the information I’ll ever need.
Here’s an example of the type of task the researchers used to conduct the study. They asked 60 Harvard students to type 40 pieces of trivia such as, “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into computers. These students, divided into two groups, were told (1) that the information would be saved, or (2) that it would be erased. Those who believed the data would be saved were less likely to remember what they typed. A no brainer, right? Nevertheless, the information is reliable because this was a well-designed study, carefully controlled, with scientifically proven results.
In one of the experiments, participants were asked not only to remember the trivia statement itself, but which of five computer folders it was saved in. The result was that people were better able to recall the folder. While this surprised the researchers, I don’t find it surprising. Nor would those who carefully file email information in folders. Experts call this “transactive memory” − remembering where you can get the information and not the information itself.
The authors conducted four studies and concluded the following. “The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.” There, you have it. These memory studies suggest that using search engines causes our brain to change the way it accesses information, depending on computer technology rather than relying solely on memory.
So the next time you forget, let Google refresh your memory. What did we ever do before Google!