A new study has demonstrated that Internet technologies, especially search engines, have changed the way we remember information: We now focus on remembering information sources rather than the information itself.
The Search-Memory Study
The study, titled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” was conducted by Betsy Sparrow, a psychologist at Columbia University. Tests were conducted in four parts, and each was aimed at better understanding how we remember data in the modern age.
The first segment of the test posed challenging trivia questions to participants and asked them to rate the difficulty of that question, then followed up with a color identification test. When the words in the color identification test were related to search engines (Yahoo and Google, for example), respondents answered more quickly – indicating that they had been thinking of the search engines in response to the trivia.
The second segment turned the trivia questions into statements and told participants to read and recall these statements. In some instances participants were told the information was saved (i.e., accessible again through stored data or via a search engine), and in other cases they were told the statements would be inaccessible. In cases where they believed the data wouldn’t be accessible again, they memorized and recalled the information more. The third test confirmed much the same: When data will be accessible later, we don’t remember it as well.
In the final part of the study, participants were shown trivia statements and then shown where that data would be accessible (specifically, in one of five folders on a computer). Users could remember the location of the data far more often than they could recall the data itself.
The Implications of the Study
What this all means is that we’ve changed from memorizing facts to memorizing methods, which Sparrow calls adaptive; it just makes more sense to conserve our brain power for tasks by using the memory-finding medium instead.
“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,” said Sparrow. “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”
Far from viewing this study as being critical of modern technology and the Internet age, Sparrow feels that this research should be applied to help further education by focusing on the resources in front of us.
“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,” said Sparrow. “And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.”
Sparrow is concerned that many might read the study and jump to specific conclusions, viewing Internet solutions as damaging rather than beneficial. She emphasizes that the science should be done – testing any assumptions about reduced intelligence, effectiveness, social skills, attention span, and so forth. She notes that, despite common beliefs otherwise, we’re getting smarter and more social in the Internet age.