Is the Internet replacing our own memory?
A new study takes a look at how an external memory system like the Internet affects our ability to remember information.
July 14th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Is the Internet replacing our own memory?

Can’t remember the name of the movie you saw last year starring Emily Deschanel’s sister? Or that recipe you used for chicken salad last week?

With an Internet connection and a few keystrokes, you can probably figure out the answer in a matter of minutes, tops. But the flip side, suggests new research in the journal Science, is that when you rely on having information stored somewhere, you may be less likely to remember it yourself.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found,” the study authors write.

But before you freak out about machines doing all your remembering for you, consider that people have always relied on each other for retrieving information, even before computers.

In fact, in any group of two or more people who know each other, there develops what’s called transactive memory systems. That means that you use other people as external memory, because they have specific knowledge and expertise that you don’t.

“The internet, when you think about it, is people putting content online. And so what it’s doing is, it’s allowing us to have access to much more external memory. Our network of people is just vastly expanded.,” said Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and lead author of the study.

In one of Sparrow’s experiments, participants read and typed trivia statements that could be found online, such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.” Participants were told that the statements would be saved to different folders with generic names such as “Facts, etc.” They then had to write down as many of the statements as they remembered and were asked to name the folder in which the information had been saved.

Remarkably, people were much better able to recall the folder names of the trivia statements than the trivia itself. In other words, people remembered the “where” better than the “what.”

As with people accustomed to looking up their questions on resources such as Wikipedia and Google, participants may have expected information to remain available indefinitely, and so the source of the information stuck with them better than the trivia statements themselves, the study authors said.

Another experiment showed that people seem to remember information better if they believe it won’t be accessible later, and more easily forget items that they believe will always be available.

“I thought that telling people to try to remember it, even though it would be accessible, would do something. It did absolutely nothing,” Sparrow said.

But Sparrow isn’t worried that relying on external memory systems like the Internet is going to cause our brains to atrophy. There might be things that we used to know and forget, but we’ll still hang on to what’s useful on a daily basis, she said.

“The stuff that we’re experts in, that we’re the source for other people, is stuff I think we’ll always remember, regardless of whether it’s online or not,” she said.

soundoff (1,522 Responses)
  1. GonzoG

    I forgot. Can I look that up on Wikipedia?

    July 14, 2011 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Alan

    No problem. We've lost our ability to do long division, too. I remember teachers telling us that the batteries in our calculators might run out.

    July 14, 2011 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe

      Google the short story "The Feeling Of Power" by Isaac Asimov. Seriously. I think you'll enjoy it.

      July 14, 2011 at 21:19 | Report abuse |
    • Will


      Feeling of Power – cool, thanks.

      July 15, 2011 at 00:49 | Report abuse |
    • boka

      I use computers and Mobile devices to do almost everything in my life. But I still like to do math (mutiply, division) on paper. I've always enjoyed math. It's hard for me but I enjoy it. I even like algebra.

      July 15, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse |
    • Isaac Asimov

      That was one of my favorite stories. Add "It's Such a Beautiful Day" to the list, too. Graphitics for everyone!

      July 15, 2011 at 11:10 | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    Alan, excellent point. In 100yrs you will have a chip in your brain that will connect wirelessly to wiki.

    July 14, 2011 at 17:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Random

      Yaha! But no wait. When you got a computer chip in your head that malfunctions virus what would it be a neurological disease for a MD to cure or an IT guy to fix?
      (Sorry for the bad spelling/grammar)

      July 15, 2011 at 04:42 | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      You should make a story out of it...my friend and I discussed what would happen if there were drives with a one-time use capacity that would enable the individual to feel certain emotions, or alter their sensory perception for a short time, possibly mimicking alcohol use, or something that could be used to combat anxiety, depression, etc. I believe a few of the problems people face would be changed drastically. What if terrorists had the smarts to wire in a chip that would make a person completely follow their orders? In turn, what if someone tried to turn into a powerful dictator doing just that? Oh, the possibilities!

      July 15, 2011 at 08:20 | Report abuse |
  4. Supra

    Reminds me eerily of the Borg...

    July 14, 2011 at 18:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. SilentBoy741

    If that headline is true, then I guess my parents were right - my head IS filled with nothing but p*rn.

    July 14, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. The_Mick

    There's no doubt that calculators made students less proficient with arithmetic – though not necessarily less proficient in math. I went to high school in the slide rule era, though by the time I got out of graduate school in chemistry everyone was using advanced calculators. My own chemistry students were often amazed when I would do complicated arithmetic in my head because they never had to and didn't realize it's not that hard if you do it often. There's no doubt to me that the Internet has made me less reliant on memory, to the point where I bought an excellent memory strengthening book, Kenneth Higbee's "Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It".

    July 14, 2011 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. dion

    Einstein said there is not point to remember most things as you only need to KNOW how to get that information – that is whats important.

    July 14, 2011 at 19:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Larry

      Easy for him to say! That rule would apply if we were all Eistein innit???

      July 15, 2011 at 02:16 | Report abuse |
  8. According to IMDb ...

    According to IMDb, Zooey Deschanel didn't make any movies in 2010 ...

    July 14, 2011 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alan

      ...and my life is a little bit smaller for that...

      July 14, 2011 at 21:42 | Report abuse |
  9. Willip

    This is in no way something new. Back in the 1500s, people had most of the same complaints about the printing press. The bookmakers were saying that people's minds would atrophy because they wouldn't have to remember anything since they could just look it up in books, but it seems to me that we've been doing pretty well since then.

    July 14, 2011 at 22:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jacqueline phillip

    I got my memry tested bfore becomin an on-line fanatic. The result was highr than the averg person. wonder if it improved since. I like the expln re external memory, so we all share 1large memonry bank???

    July 14, 2011 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jennifer

    So my smart fone is making me a bimbo!?

    July 14, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sarah

      Well, I'm sure it also has something to do with what you decide to look up online. If you just look up facts about the Kardashians all day, I'm not sure your brain would have had a fighting chance in the first place.

      July 15, 2011 at 08:23 | Report abuse |
  12. keltickal

    In commonly used terms, the internet provides storage, not memory. Memory is the RAM in a computer and storage is provided by the hard drive. Programs execute in RAM and programs and data are stored on the hard drive or on the cloud.

    July 14, 2011 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • John

      Thanks for the useless tangent on computer terminology. Now let's nitpick at your comment:

      Not all "storage is provided by the hard drive." What about discs? DVD, CD, Blu-ray, all can store data. How about a flash drive? Those are all storage devices that aren't hard drives.

      Programs do not execute in RAM, programs execute on the CPU. The RAM is just an intermediary from the hard drive to the CPU. It's much faster to get data stored in RAM than from the hard drive.

      What do you think the "cloud" is? The cloud stores data on hard drives too. It's redundant to say "hard drive or on the cloud." Both are hard drives.

      July 15, 2011 at 00:09 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      I explain it to people like this; 'storage' is how many books you have on your shelf, and 'memory' is how many books you can read at once.

      July 15, 2011 at 08:44 | Report abuse |
  13. giggity.giggity

    its ok the government will provide memory for you

    July 14, 2011 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Rob M

    This is silly. Did the encyclopedia or dictionary replace our memory? What wasn't a story done about that? Maybe there was... I'd have to look that up...

    July 15, 2011 at 00:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. salih

    The most important thing in this situation is using the information. If people use the information they need, they are less likely to forget whether it can be accessible from computer or not. The other thing is that the necessity of information. If the information we retrieve is necessary or crucial, our ability to remember would be permanent. On the other hand, nowadays we can get the information easily, swiftly and without effort. Therefore, our brain accustomed itself to this way, and they would become work more slow for retriving and processing the information.

    July 15, 2011 at 02:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Bubba

    There's too much information to know everything. It used to be that a man could read every book in the world in his lietime, but then came the printing press. Now we are lucky if we know that something exists and where to find it. What's the melting point of boron? Dunno, but I know that you can look it up.

    July 15, 2011 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • el Slimmo

      2079 Celsius

      July 15, 2011 at 14:30 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba


      July 15, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
  17. Bubba

    I forgot what I was going to say.

    July 15, 2011 at 08:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. OkComputer

    Information is useless if you don't know what to do with it. The Internet allows us to think about problems far beyond what we where capable of 30, 50, 100 years ago. We have an abundance of data out there, and we need to figure out how to make sense of it. That is the new human challenge.

    July 15, 2011 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paranoid Android

      I collated millions of bits of data to create the perfect lolcat.

      July 15, 2011 at 10:27 | Report abuse |
  19. Myrmidon

    Are books replacing our own memory?

    July 15, 2011 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bubba

      I read one that said they were. But then I read another one that said they weren't. So, maybe?

      July 15, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse |
  20. Bubba

    Once the Singularity comes, we will all be vastened and exist in multiple iterations. There will be thousands of Charles Strosses and Rudy Ruckers all over the solar system. A 'smartphone' will be one that can write novels and marry a blender. Start lifeboxong yourself today!

    July 15, 2011 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jim

    Yeah, because theres some magic time in history when people didnt write things down and everyone retained everything. Dumbest article ever.

    July 15, 2011 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paranoid Android

      Generally illiterate cultures are better at remembering things. Consider that blind Homer memorized the Illiad and Odyssey, and other bards did the same until it was written down. But there is just too much to remember in modern times, and even illiterates used tally marks and cave paintings to 'bind time.'

      July 15, 2011 at 11:05 | Report abuse |
    • twolfhound

      Really? You act like everything a person has to remember today is just as much as it always has been. 500 years ago people had to remember how to connect their computers to the internet? Had to remember how to drive their cars, utilize their Iphones, deal with their bank accounts, etc? They had to remember their trade, which was far more simplistic than just about any trade today. They didn't remember more, they just remembered everything dealing with their lives far more simply because the lives were far more simplistic. We remember a lot more than most generations throughout history, because we have a ton more to remember! (You think the typical Englishman in 1590 knew anything about South Africa?)

      July 21, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse |
  22. sala

    How you all know? You all just make it up! The internet only replace your mind if you let.

    July 15, 2011 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. sala

    What about Star Trek?

    July 15, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. TampaMel

    Lets see, the internet makes us remember less, before that books made us remember less, before that writing mades us remember less and before that language (so we can ask someone else) mades us remember less. Does that mean at the dawn of mankind we had really good memories and all these human advances have affected that ability? OMG, take me back to those simple days when all we could do is grunt.

    July 16, 2011 at 01:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • twolfhound

      Of course, back then there was nothing worth remembering... Except maybe the best hunting spots. (But ask any fisher, you can still remember that today.)

      July 21, 2011 at 12:00 | Report abuse |
  25. Jonathan

    Externalization of Memory started when people started drawing on cave walls


    July 16, 2011 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. sala

    And Sell Your House, too.

    July 17, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. sala

    Octavia and Augusta gal?

    July 17, 2011 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. sala

    No it does not, BUBBA.

    July 17, 2011 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. sala

    Jonathan, you go back there

    July 17, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Adam

    i guess if you have learning difficulties then this might apply. i tend to remember everything i read about online.. not really sure what the hell this article is about.

    July 18, 2011 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. New external hard drive

    So instead of asking around until you hear "I know a guy...." Not much different really.

    July 21, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
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