Is the Internet Affecting Human Memory?

by Mark Aragona

It seems that the human mind doesn’t want to work harder than it has to. Studies are showing that our easy access to search engines is affecting our ability to recall information: we are less likely to remember something if we know we can find it online.

Researchers from the University of Columbia, Harvard, and University of Wisconsin conducted psychology experiments on a group of participants to test how memory works. In one trial, they found that volunteers are more likely to remember trivia if they thought they would not be able to research it online later on. Researchers concluded that they “don’t make the effort to remember” if they knew they could look up the information.

A second memory experiment also showed that participants are more likely to remember where important data is stored in a computer than what that information is. “That kind of blew my mind,” says lead author Dr. Betsy Sparrow.

According to Sparrow, the Internet functions as a “trans-active memory” which people have come to depend on to store information for them. Trans-active memory is nothing new—we’ve been doing the same thing for centuries through books and other people. Scholars and experts, for example, have been entrusted with and are expected to retain certain specialized data. In more social terms, we rely on our own spouse or partner to remember important dates and events for us. We leverage other people’s memories for our own benefit.

The Internet is a game-changer because it provides a vast amount of information within easy reach.

On one hand, storing information digitally may just be a good way to ensure it can be accurately recollected later on. After all, we have a tendency to forget, be selective about, or even subconsciously alter our memories according to our convenience.

On the other hand, it does tend to make us lazy. Would that mean that general education is less valuable, because most of what we want to know is just a Google search away? And with the advent of Intenet Protocol version 6 and mass storage, the web will have a seemingly bottomless capacity for keeping the information it receives on a daily basis. How will all that affect our ability to remember? Will long-term memory eventually decline as online technology grows?

Morever, if the Internet can affect our memory, what about other thought processes, say analysis or critical thinking? What about social intelligence? Or even just the ability to form a personal opinion? If we continually rely on the Internet to remember for us, will we eventually come to rely on it to tell us what to think?

One Comment:

  1. I’m reminded of Niven & Pournelle’s “Oath of Fealty”. At one point, characters with data implants start to wonder: what if the data in the implants is tampered with? What if they lose connection to the network?

    I think knowledge can be broadly categorized as:

    1. Knowing the fact.
    2. Understanding the fact.
    3. Analyzing the fact, including critical analysis that might imply that the fact is correct.
    4. Comprehending implications of the fact.
    5. Knowing how to do something with the fact.

    The internet helps with 1, and it gives you other people’s opinions on 4 and maybe 3. So a good education should focus on 2 through 5. Those are skills, not facts.

    That’s not really that big of a change. Other than ease of access, you could substitute a good reference library for the internet; and it would still be 2 through 5 that were most valuable.

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