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The Internet Changes How We Remember

( [email protected] ) Jul 16, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

Access to Internet search engines, such as Google, changes the way we store and access our memories, according to new research published in the journal Science.

The study, called “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” found that, because of Google, we tend to use our brains to remember how to find information, rather than the information itself. In essence, we let Google store the information for us.

The process – called transactive memory sources – of remembering where to find information, instead of information itself, is not new. Before the Internet, for instance, you might remember who is a good speller or good at math, in case you needed help with how to spell a word or balance your checkbooks.

The difference now is that Google is a more salient transactive memory source, according to Dr. Betsy Sparrow, psychology professor at Columbia University, in an interview for The Newshour. Since Google contains a wealth of information, much more than the transactive memory sources of the past, and is easy to access, we are more likely to let Google store information for us.

In many cases, we use Google to find information that we already have in our memories because Google is faster than us at retrieving that information. Many of us probably already know, for instance, how many quarts are in a gallon, or who played the lead role in “Gone With the Wind,” but it might take some time for our brains to retrieve that information. Google is quicker than our brains at finding some information.

You might try to remember who played the lead role in “Gone With the Wind,” for instance, by picturing the actress in your mind, or remembering where you were the last time you watched the film. You also know, however, that you can Google “lead actress in Gone With the Wind” and find the information much quicker. Knowing that you can find it more quickly means that your brain is less likely to store that information in a quickly accessible way.

“Everyone realizes they're doing this. It resonates with everybody,” said Sparrow. It seems that much more scary in ways, the idea that we're locating everything that we learn outside of ourselves.”

Does this mean our ability to remember information will erode as a result of the Internet? Sparrow does not think so, but admits that there is no data available to answer that question.

The study points to the brains tendency towards efficiency. It remembers what it needs to remember. In a world where so much information is easily available to us through smartphones and computers, remembering how to find information becomes more important than remembering the information itself.

Sparrow believes the results point to a need to rethink how we teach students in a digital age. “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,” Sparrow told Research, a publication of Columbia University.

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

The other authors of the study were Jenny Liu, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Daniel M. Wegner, of Harvard University.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Columbia University's Department of Psychology.

The lead actress in “Gone With the Wind” is Vivien Leigh, and there are four quarts in a gallon. (I googled it.)