The flood of information available online with just a few clicks and finger-taps may be subtly changing the way we retain information, according to a new study. But this doesn’t mean we’re becoming less mentally agile or thoughtful, say the researchers involved. Instead, the change can be seen as a natural extension of the way we already rely upon social memory aids—like a friend who knows a particular subject inside out.
Researchers and writers have debated over how our growing reliance on Internet-connected computers may be changing our mental faculties. The constant assault of tweets and YouTube videos, the argument goes, might be making us more distracted and less thoughtful—in short, dumber. However, there is little empirical evidence of the Internet’s effects, particularly on memory.
Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and lead author of the new study, put college students through a series of four experiments to explore this question.
One experiment involved participants reading and then typing out a series of statements, like “Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated,” on a computer. Half of the participants were told that their statements would be saved, and the other half were told they would be erased. Additionally, half of the people in each group were explicitly told to remember the statements they typed, while the other half were not. Participants who believed the statements would be erased were better at recalling them, regardless of whether they were told to remember them.
Another experiment had subjects again typing predetermined statements into a computer, but this time, some were told that their statements would be saved in a specific folder on that machine. Participants were better at remembering the names of the folders a statement was stored in than they were at remembering the statements themselves.
The experiments suggest that we are less likely to remember facts when we know they can be easily looked up online, the researchers say. This conclusion is an extension of an idea proposed some 30 years ago by Sparrow’s mentor (and a coauthor of a paper describing the latest work), Daniel Wegner, of Harvard’s psychology department.