File photo of Google Inc's logo
File photo of Google Inc's logo. Reuters

More than an ever people are using the internet to remember things according to a new study from Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow.

According to the study, the internet has changed the way people retain information. People who are confident they can find a piece of information on the internet will let it slip from their memory.

Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things, Sparrow said. 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. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.

Sparrow, who wrote a paper on the study titled Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, says the internet has led to a form of transactive memory-recollections that are external to us but that we know when and how to access. To prove this, Sparrow and colleagues Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University conducted several studies.

Contestants were asked a series of difficult trivia questions. Following that, they were tested to see if they had increased difficulty with a basic color naming task showing participants' words in either blue or red. This research was done to see if participants were thinking of search engines like Google when they didn't know an answer. Sparrow and colleagues found they were thinking of search engines.

In other studies, the participants were told various statements. Some of them were told the statements would be erased and others were told they would be saved. Those who were told the statements would be erased remembered better than those who were told they'd be saved. This indicated people are less likely to remember things when they think they can look it up later.

Sparrow says this phenomenon can be used to change the way educators and leaders teach their various fields.

Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization, Sparrow said. And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.

The study will appear in the current issue of Science.

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna