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Evidence Suggests that the Internet Changes How We Remember

A study says that we rely on external tools, including the Internet, to augment our memory.

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.

Wegner proposed the idea of “transactive memory” as a collective social memory of sorts. For example, if a friend has an exhaustive knowledge of Greek history, you can simply remember that The Iliad is Greek and that your friend knows about Greek things, rather than remembering who wrote the epic poem. Sparrow and Wegner say that the Internet may serve a similar function, acting as an extension of this external memory.

Mary C. Potter, professor of psychology in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, says the study supports the commonsense idea that we use external tools to remember information. She notes, however, that many of the results are at the threshold for statistical significance, and says the study should be seen as suggestive rather than conclusive.

Potter also wonders if the results may be due to sociological rather than psychological phenomena. When your friend whips out his smart phone to look up information about a band, this could be “because it’s fun” rather than being about changes to how our brains store information, she says.

Nicholas Carr has been one of the leading voices in the debate. His book The Shallows, published in June, contends that the Internet is having a detrimental effect, an argument he supports with numerous scientific studies. He says Sparrow’s study “indicates how flexible our brains are in adapting to our tools.”

However, he’s not convinced that this adaptation is positive. “It’s critically important to remember that there’s a difference between external memory and internal memory,” he says. “If you’re not internalizing … then your understanding becomes less personal, less distinctive, and, I think, ultimately more superficial.”

Sparrow, on the other hand, sees this adaptation as positive. She says our minds are molding to the Internet, just as they have in the past with technologies like the written word.

She’s now trying to probe the benefits of this external memory with more experiments. Imagine a history student reading a dense passage, full of dates and names, about the American Revolution. Perhaps if the student is confident that the details will be available on the Internet, he will be better able to get a larger sense of why the revolution happened. Her intuition is that when we expect the details to be available later, we’re better at looking for larger messages that might be obscured if we were preoccupied with minutiae.

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