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Search Engines Affect Memory

July 15, 2011

Increased use of Internet search engines such as Google are changing the way the human brain remembers information, according to new research by a psychologist at Columbia University.

The study, led by Prof. Betsy Sparrow and published online in the journal Science on Thursday, finds that internet searches are making information easy to forget, as more people rely on their computers as a source of “external memory.”

Researchers examined the so-called “Google effect,” and found people had poor recall of knowledge if they knew where the answers to questions were easily found.

“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” Sparrow told the Telegraph. “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 said people are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. And people are better able to remember where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself. The research is believed to be the first of its kind into the impact of search engines and databases on human memory organization.

Search engines, including Google, Bing, and Yahoo, and databases, including Wikipedia and IMDb.com, are among the top websites experts blame.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems,” said Sparrow. “We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers “” and lose if they are out of touch.”

“Human memory is adapting to new communications technology,” she said, adding that “we are not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.”

“Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can off-load some of our memory demands onto machines,” Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University who was also involved in the study, told the Telegraph.

For the study, Sparrow and colleagues asked about 60 Harvard students to type 40 pieces of trivia, such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” into computers, and were told the information would either be saved or erased. People who believed the data would be saved were less likely to remember the information typed, according to researchers.

They then asked 46 students from Harvard a series of true-false questions based on those trivia facts before showing them words in different colors. When the words could be linked to the Internet, students responded more slowly and admitted they were contemplating searching for the answers on the web.

Another experiment involved 28 undergraduates from Columbia University who were asked trivia questions. They were allowed to take notes and the researchers found they struggled to remember information that would be saved.

Finally, in a fourth experiment, a further 34 Columbia students remembered where they stored their information in folders on their computers better than they were able to recall the information itself.

Sparrow admitted it remained unclear what the effects of being so “wired” will have on people in the future. The Internet has replaced a person’s circle of friends where people would traditionally look for information.

“(They) did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” she told the Telegraph. “It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets.”

“(It shows) we must remain plugged in to know what Google knows,” she added.

Sparrow said the idea for the study came as she watched the 1944 movie “Gaslight” one night and after wondering who the actress was who played the maid, she turned to her computer and Googled it.

Sparrow’s paper is titled, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.”

Co-authors are Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University.

Sparrow believes a greater understanding of how our memory works in a world with search engines has the potential to change teaching and learning in all 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,” said Sparrow. “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. 

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