Google's replacing our memory, study finds

Posted by Kate Taylor

We've all suspected it, and apparently it's true: search engines such as Google are destroying our memory.

Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow says we forget things we're confident we can find on the internet, while we're more likely to remember things we think are not available online.

And what little memory we do have left is also devoted to the great god Google: we're better able to remember where to find something on the internet than we are to remember the information itself.

"Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things," says Sparrow. "Our brains rely on the internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found."

Sparrow asked participants to answer a series of difficult trivia questions. They were then immediately tested to see if they had increased difficulty with a basic color naming task, which showed participants words in either blue or red.

And, she says, their reaction time to search engine-related words, such as Google and Yahoo, indicated that they were thinking of internet search engines as the way to find information.

Next, the trivia questions were turned into statements. Participants read the statements and were tested for their recall of them when they believed the statements had been saved — meaning accessible to them later as is the case with the internet — or erased.

And Sparrow found that participants didn't learn the information as well when they believed it would be accessible later, and performed worse on the memory test than people who believed the information was erased.

Next, the same trivia statements were used to test memory of both the information itself and where it could be found. Participants again believed that information either would be saved in general, saved in a specific spot, or erased - and recognized the statements which were erased more than those which were saved.

And in a final test, when participants believed all trivia statements that they typed would be saved into one of five generic folders, they found it easier to recall the folder names than the trivia statements themselves.

A deeper analysis revealed that people don't necessarily remember where to find certain information when they remember what it was, but that they particularly tend to remember where to find information thatthey can’t actually remember.

"Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization," says Sparrow.

"And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding."