Google rewiring the way we remember, study says

We used to turn to friends and family for help remembering things. Now, says research out of Columbia University, the Internet has become our primary external memory source. Let's hope Google doesn't break anytime soon.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
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We've been told that social networking can make us depressed, envious, and filled with self-doubt, not to mention mess with our marriages.

Now, a new study out of Columbia University suggests another Internet-related side effect: All that Googling we're doing may be impacting our memory (which might not be a bad thing if it helps us forget all the scary things our online lives are supposedly doing to us).

The good news is our dependence on Internet searches isn't necessarily shrinking our cerebral cortexes or making us forget where we put our car keys. Instead, it's changing the way our brains organize and retain information, according to the study.

"Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things," Betsy Sparrow, a Columbia University assistant professor of psychology, said in a statement. "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."

In other words, the Internet has become a primary form of what psychologists call "transactive memory," or externally stored recollections that we know where to access when we need to.

The research, which comes out tomorrow in the journal Science, suggests we forget things we're sure we can find on the Internet, and are more likely to remember things we think we can't (probably very little these days). Furthermore, the research says, we are better able to remember where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself.

Sparrow doesn't want her research to alarm people. She thinks a greater understanding of memory in the Google age could impact teaching and learning in beneficial ways.

Sparrow's paper, titled "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," is based on research conducted with colleagues Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University. It involved four memory tests.

One experiment involved the participants reading trivia statements. They were then tested for their memory of them when they believed the statements had been saved (searchable later as is the case with Internet search and databases) or erased. Subjects who believed the information would be accessible did worse on the memory test than those who believed the information was gone.

The same trivia statements were used to test memory of both the information itself and where the information could be found. Participants again believed data either would be saved in general, saved in a specific spot, or erased. They recognized the erased statements more than the ones that were saved.

Sparrow doesn't want her research to alarm people. She thinks a greater understanding of memory in the Google age could impact teaching and learning in beneficial ways.

"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 research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Columbia's department of psychology.