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.

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