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Using Google as a memory bank: How our access to the Internet is changing our brains

— Media & Technology —

It’s difficult to imagine living in a world without instant access to information at our fingertips.  The Internet has not only drastically impacted the efficiency of our everyday lives, but it’s also changing the way our brains work.

A recent study conducted at Columbia University explored the relationship between human memory and technology, challenging the myth that our access to the Internet is making us mentally lazier.

The study, referred to as “The Google Effect,” confirmed that the use of the Google search engine alters our brains and changes the way we organize and recall information.  Instead of relying on our rote memory (learning through pattern or repetition) to remember information, we rely heavily on external sources to find the information for us.

The Internet essentially serves as a form of transactive memory, or information that is stored collectively outside of our personal memory that we can call upon at any time.  Knowing that we can rely on Google to access information instantly, we often outsource our rote memory search to Google and eliminate the need for our brain to do the job.

Historically, humans have relied on other information reservoirs (e.g. other people) to help them out in recalling information.  Prior to the existence of the Internet and search engines, people relied heavily on “group memories,” or memories passed on from person to person within groups.  Today, Google acts as the primary group memory source.  We’ve become primed to defer to technology when tasked with recalling information or asked a difficult question.  Thus, we have lower rates of recalling information based on our own memory, but enhanced recall for where we can access information.

Simply put, if we know where we can find the information we seek, we are much less likely to put forth the effort store it in our own brain.

One of the key experiments within the Google Effect study asked participants to type 40 pieces of trivia info a computer.  Half of the subjects believed the information would be saved on the computer, and half were told that the items they typed would be erased.  Those that thought the information would be deleted were more likely to remember the trivia, as they believed that would not be able to access the information at a later time if they needed to recall it, indicating that people are much less likely to put forth effort in remembering information when they know where they can find it instead.

Further delving into how we use our memory in conjunction with our technological resources, researchers were curious as to what we think of first when asked to recall a piece of information.  Do we think about the specific memory first and dig into our rote memory to find it, or do we immediately jump to where we can go to find out?

Participants were asked whether there are any countries with only one color on their national flag.  What surprised researchers was that participants were better able to recall the folder on the computer where they had previously stored the information, instead of the actual information itself.

Remembering where you can find information, rather than the information itself, is referred to as our transactive memory.  Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in a very similar way as we rely on friends, family, co-workers and others to recall specific memories and information.  We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where information can be found.

The use of search engines suggests that human memory is reorganizing where it turns to find information.  We are adapting to new technologies rather than solely relying on our rote memory.  With new technology constantly being introduced and integrated into our daily lives, our brains evolve as we learn to use it.  Our brains will continue to evolve over time in response to the environmental stimuli that it is presented with.

While the Internet’s effects on memory are still largely unexplored territory, the Internet has become a primary external storage system, saving us time and freeing up parts of our brain to use for other, more creative endeavors.  It is easier to learn and understand complex concepts when we don’t feel pressured to have to remember everything.  By freeing up our mental RAM, we increase the speed by which we process other information.

Betsy Sparrow, psychologist and lead researcher on the Google Effect study, was quoted saying, “We’re not thoughtless, empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore, but we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go to find things.  And that’s kind of amazing.”

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