Researchers: Search engines supplanting our memory

Search-engine users feel less need to remember things they can easily look up, researchers say

Ubiquitous availability of the Internet may be causing a shift in how much information we retain in our memories, researchers claim.

Because search engines such as Google and Bing are so readily at hand, through desktop computers and mobile phones, we feel less need to remember details that can be easily looked up, note researchers from Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard University.

They have published their study, entitled "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," in this week's edition of the journal Science.

"People worry about what our relationship to technology is doing to our cognition," said Betty Sparrow, a researcher at Columbia University who led the research. "They worry about looking up everything online and not remembering it all."

To probe the effects of this behavior, the researchers carried out a battery of tests with undergraduate students that closely observed what information they committed to memory and what information they didn't bother remembering, presuming that they could look it up on a computer should they need to refer to it later.

In one test, 28 participants were asked to read and retype items of memorable trivia, such as "Greenland is the world's largest island by area." Some of the participants were told the information that they typed in would be erased and others were told it would be saved on a computer. Then, they were quizzed on the material they retyped. Those that believed their material would be erased remembered more of the information than those who had assumed the material would be saved.

"Thus it appears that believing that one won't have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself," the paper stated. In other words, if someone knows that information may be found on the Internet, he or she may be less likely to commit that information to memory.

Another experiment was conduct to determine if people prefer to memorize the locations of where they could find data in favor of remembering the data itself. Here, 32 participants were presented with a number of statements, along with the names of folders in which these bits of information would be saved. Then, they were asked to recall as much of the information as possible and were then quizzed on which folder each piece of information was in.

Overall, participants were better able to recall which folder each bit of information was stored in than the information itself.

Such results shouldn't alarm people, Sparrow cautioned. "I don't think that the parts of our brain that can remember information are atrophied," she said. While the Internet is fairly new, the act of relying on external resources for memory is not new for humans. People have long relied on friends, co-workers and family to keep track of information that they themselves have forgotten. The researchers call this phenomena "transactive memory."

"We've always done this sort of thing, allowed certain types of information to be stored with other people," Sparrow said. "Computers and access to online information work in similar ways."

Sparrow may next investigate if people memorize different kinds of things now that search engines are capturing all the details of what they used to memorize. Freed from the burden of remembering specifics, people could possibly better understand the larger meaning of the material they learn.

"Will people who don't focus so much on remembering who, what and where be better at answering conceptual type of questions?" she said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags harvard universityInternet-based applications and servicesColumbia UniversityUniversity of WisconsinGoogleMicrosoftinternet

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Joab Jackson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?