Are Search Engines And Internet Use Making Our Brains Lazy?: The Effects of Having Information At Our Fingertips
A new era began with the advent of computers and the internet. The constant stream of open access to everything (really) and anything changed our lives. I mean, can you actually remember what your sources where before the internet? As one of the few that remembers sifting through library catalogs, I keep being amazed at the amount of phrases I can type into Google search and get results for… As a neuroscience student, I can’t help but being concerned about the impact that this may have on our (very plastic) brains. Sometimes I believe that the internet is making us dumber. But is it really?
In a recent Science paper, psychologists Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel M. Wegner postulate a very interesting role for the internet- an external memory source where information is stored collectively outside ourselves. In psychology, this type of memory, often referred to in the literature as transactive memory, is not new. According to Wegner, when people are in dyads or groups, they form transactive memory systems in which they are able to create and access memory stores in other individuals. Thus, the authors questioned whether internet and search engines have become a primary transactive memory source.
In a series of experiments, the authors tested participants who were asked to read and engage in a typing task for memory recall in order to study the nature of how we encode online information. The studies found evidence for an adaptive use of memory involved in information storage and recall.
- When participants believed that information would be available later in the future (as happens when using search engines), they had worse information recall. Apparently, participants did not make the effort to remember or encode the trivia facts if they thought they could look them up later.
- Believing that the information would not be available in the future enhanced memory for the information itself. Believing that the information will be necessary in the future (like in exams) also increased memory recall.
- On the other hand, believing that the information was stored externally (similar to bookmarking pages or going through internet history), enhanced memory recall for the fact that the information could be accessed but not for the memory itself.
- Overall, participants recalled the places where their statements were kept better than they recalled the statements/information itself (see figure above)
It seems like that when information is presented in a transactive memory system, the location (or “where”) of a memory is favored over the identity (the “what”) of the memory. Is this a result of our brain adapting to new information/communication technology? As our reliance on computers and gadgets increases, are we becoming symbiotic with these tools?
Sparrow, B., Liu, J. and Wegner DM. 2011. Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 333 (6043): 776-8.