Will Search Engines Destroy Our Memory Process?

By: By Kyle Niemeyer
By: By Kyle Niemeyer

In the age of Google and Wikipedia, an almost unlimited amount of information is available at our fingertips, and with the rise of smartphones, many of us have nonstop access. The potential to find almost any piece of information in seconds is beneficial, but is this ability actually negatively impacting our memory? The authors of a paper that is being released by Science Express describe four experiments testing this. Based on their results, people are recalling information less, and instead can remember where to find the information they have forgotten.

The authors pose one simple example that had me immediately agreeing with their conclusions. Test yourself: how many countries have flags with only one color? Regardless of your answer, was your first thought about actual flags, or was it to consider where you would find that information? Without realizing it (even though I knew the content of the paper), I found myself mentally planning on opening up my Web browser and heading for a search engine.

This concept of relying on external sources of information is not new to the computer age. In group environments, people develop what’s known as transactive memory, which is the sum of information held by the group (one of the authors of the current paper, Daniel Wegner, is the Harvard psychologist who first proposed the concept in 1985). Think of it like a group of experts working as a team, where each person has their own area of expertise—when you need some information you don’t have, you just go to the person who does.

The authors argue that easy access to information via the Internet forms another transactive memory source. However, in this case, access to this source may actually hurt our memory.

In the first experiment, the authors gave participants a mix of easy and hard trivia questions, then tested their response time to colored computer and non-computer words through a modified Stroop task. The task relies on having a term printed in color; if the term itself is interesting, subjects have a harder time naming the color. They found that, when given harder questions, people took longer on computer-related words, suggesting they thought about computers when needing information.

The second experiment tested whether people remember information if they expect to have easy access to it later. Subjects were asked to remember a bit of notable trivia and type it into a computer; half were informed that the information would be saved. People who didn’t believe they would need information (because it was saved) recalled less than if they thought they would need to remember it. In other words, we may unconsciously make little effort to remember something we know we can look up in the future.

In experiment three, the researchers wanted to see if people recalled the location where information could be found. Again using trivia, they had the subjects type a tidbit into a computer, then either erased it, saved it to a generic location, or saved it to a specific location. Later, the participants were asked to recall the trivia statements, whether they had been saved, and if so where. According to the paper, people have better recall of things they believe will be erased. But they were even better at remembering whether it was saved or erased—even though people didn’t remember where it was saved, just that it was.

The final experiment tested if people recall where to find information more than the information itself. Similar to experiment three, participants were given trivia statements and told where they would be saved, then were tested on both the content of the statements and the save locations. Overall, people remembered the locations where the information was saved more than the information itself. If they remembered the trivia, however, its location was forgotten.

The results from all four experiments suggest that people expect computerized information to be continuously available, and actually remember less when they know they’ll have access to it later. We also seem to remember where we can find information instead of the information itself.

Our memory appears to be adapting to technology, for better or worse. Some argue that the changes to our brains caused by instant access to information are damaging and similar to addiction, but other results suggest that actively searching online can actually strengthen some brains. Most wouldn’t consider typical group transactive memory to be damaging, but beneficial—who’s to say these developments aren’t also a good thing? With access to unprecedented amounts of external knowledge, perhaps this now unused capacity of our brains can be used in other ways?


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