Google changing the way we remember, study finds

Posted July 15, 2011, at 6:25 p.m.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A new study confirms it: Google is altering your brain. More precisely, our growing dependence on the Internet has changed how — and what — our brains choose to remember.

When we know where to find information, we’re less likely to remember it — an amnesia dubbed “The Google Effect” by a team led by psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University.

Goodbye, soul-searching; hello, facts-at-fingertips.

The finding, published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, doesn’t prove that Google, Yahoo or other search engines are making us dumber, as some have asserted. We’re still capable of remembering things that matter — and are not easily found online, Sparrow said.

Rather, it suggests that the human memory is reorganizing where it goes for information, adapting to new computing technologies rather than relying purely on rote memory. We’re outsourcing “search” from our brains to our computers.

“We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore,” Sparrow said. “But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.”

In a series of four experiments at Columbia and Harvard, Sparrow and her team found that students are more likely to recall a trivial fact if they think it will be erased from the computer — and forget it if they’re assured it will be there.

Similarly, the team proved that people are better at remembering where to find facts, rather than the facts themselves. The students, they found, recalled the names of files where information was stored, rather than the information itself.

This creates a mental dependency on instant access to information, the team noted.

No wonder the loss of our Internet connection feels like losing a friend, they wrote. Once we become reliant on a huge reservoir of information, it feels uneasy to be away from it, she said.

“We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows,” the paper concludes.

But in many ways, this is no different than humans’ age-old reliance on the “group memories” shared by friends, families and tribes, noted Sparrow and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University.

We may not recall our aunt’s birthday, the name of a high school teacher or who gave us that nice bottle of wine — but someone we know does.

“We all have these people in our lives who know certain things. And we dip into what they know, when we need it,” said Sparrow. “We allow them to be responsible for it.”

“I really think we are using the Internet the way we used to use people,” she said.

While Google said it could not comment on the premise of the paper, spokesman Gabriel Stricker said, “Search is how Google began, and we’re constantly working to improve it. Search can always get better and faster at helping you find what you want, when you want it, where you want it.”

Proving that the Internet is merely an expanded network of people, New York University professor Clay Shirky, author of the book “Cognitive Surplus,” has done the math: The articles, edits, and arguments on Wikipedia represent around 100 million hours of human labor, he calculated. That’s more than 11,400 years.

If we quit remembering, “the Internet would grind to a halt,” Sparrow said. “Nobody would be feeding anything into it.”

There are losses — unlike their great-grandparents, few of today’s children can recite poems like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Perhaps this is a skill that, when not practiced, turns rusty.

Sparrow disagrees with Nicholas Carr, whose alarming 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” explains what he sees as the brain-corrosive side effects of digital devices.

It doesn’t prove that we’re incapable of thinking long and hard about anything, she said. “And it could be that once we stop worrying about memorizing dates and facts and names, we’re better able to concentrate.”

In fact, a wired life may actually open up more creative things to do with our brain, the team said. Psychologists have long known that it is easier to grasp an abstract concept when the brain is not fixated on memorizing facts.

“Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can offload some of our memory demands onto machines,” Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University, told Science in an accompanying article.

Sparrow got interested in the topic one night at home, while watching the 1944 mystery-thriller “Gaslight.” She knew she recognized the maid — but couldn’t remember her name.

“Before the Internet, I’d trace it back in my mind … thinking ‘Where else did I see her? Was it in black and white, or color? Was I with friends, or not? What book might know?’ Anything to find a clue,” she said.

Instead she went online and in seconds had an answer: an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘What did we do before the Internet?’“

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