Internet search engines, like Google, are making information easier to forget, according to a new study, suggesting that the use of the Internet is altering human memory.
With so much information on the Internet, and with nearly instant access to any of it via Google and other tools, computers are in a way becoming a type of external memory for people.
That's the central finding of Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner, published online Thursday on the Web site of Science Magazine.
Dr. Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, led the research using four experiments into how human beings utilize memory differently when computers are involved.
The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger, the report says. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can 'Google' the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue.
As an example, about 60 Harvard students were asked to type 40 pieces of trivia, such as An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain, into computers, and were told either the information would be saved or erased.
People who believed the data would be saved were less likely to remember, according to the study published online by the journal Science.
The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
The research also found that people are primed to look to the Internet first for knowledge.
Another experiment, run on 34 undergraduates at Columbia University in New York, showed that people remembered where they stored their information better than they were able to recall the information itself.
We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems, the authors wrote in the paper. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers -- and lose if they are out of touch.
It isn't clear what the effects of being so wired will have on people over time, the authors, led by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia, wrote
But it suggests that the use of search engines is causing our brains to reorganize where it goes for information, adapting to new computing technologies rather than relying solely on rote memory.
Another experiment sought to determine whether computer accessibility affected exactly what we remember.
If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, the researchers wrote, do we think about flags, or immediately think to go online to find out?
As further experiment the participants were asked not only to remember the trivia statement itself, but which of five computer folders it was saved in.
The answer surprised the researchers: People were better able to recall the folder.
That kind of blew my mind, Sparrow said in an interview.
Experts call this transactive memory. Essentially, remembering where you can get the information and not the information itself.
Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member, or co-worker, Sparrow said. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.
I love watching baseball, Sparrow said in example of transactive memory. But I know my husband knows baseball facts, so when I want to know something I ask him, and I don't bother to remember it.
The Internet's effects on memory are still unexplored territory, Sparrow said, but added that her experiments have led her to this conclusion: Internet has become our primary external storage system.
Human memory, she said, is adapting to new communications technology.