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How Google affects your memory

July 15th 2011 19:57

google internet memory mind brain

Not so long ago, if you woke up in the middle of the night, driven crazy by not being able to remember the name of the shortstop on the 1986 Mets, or the title of Kevin Bacon’s first movie or the year Toni Basil’s “Mickey” hit the Billboard charts, you were out of luck until you could call a friend or hit the library.

But thanks to Google, IMDB and other search engines and databases, most people can now access that information very quickly — without even getting out of bed, if you keep your smartphone on your night table. (In case your own phone is out of reach: Rafael Santana, “Animal House,” and 1982.)

In a paper published online by the journal Science, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and colleagues report that a series of experiments suggest the ubiquity of all this online data means the way we remember things has actually changed. Much as we’ve gotten used to relying on friends, family and colleagues to know things for us (why bother to learn the subway route to your mother-in-law’s house if your husband already knows where to transfer?), we may be unconsciously outsourcing some memory functions to the collective intelligence of the internet.

The first experiment, for example, showed that if you ask people difficult trivia questions, they are more likely to subsequently quickly react to words like “Google” and “Yahoo” than the non-computer-related “Nike” and “Yoplait.” That, the authors say, suggests when we are asked about things we don’t know, our first instinct is to think about finding the information online.

Other experiments showed people are more likely to remember trivia statements they’re typing into a computer if they think they’ll be erased from the computer’s memory, and more likely to forget them if they think they’ll be saved. Being explicitly told to remember the information made no difference in whether people remembered it, suggesting this process of “deciding” whether to remember something is unconscious, Sparrow tells the Health Blog.

Another experiment offers “preliminary evidence” that if we’re faced with information we think will be easily available in the future — like the cast list from “Animal House” — we’re more likely to remember where we can find it ( than details of the information itself.

Sparrow emphasizes that this doesn’t mean that the brain’s ability to remember facts and figures has atrophied — only that we don’t access this skill as much as we used to. If someone took your cell phone away forever, you’d still be able to memorize important phone numbers, she says.

Now Sparrow is interested in studying whether there are any benefits to these changes in our memory function. For example, if you read an article about the Civil War, full of facts but also broader themes, would you be more likely to remember the larger takeaway messages if you expect to be able to get the names and dates online anytime you want?

In other words, the outsourcing of memory to the internet may help us remember what’s most important.

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