The extended mind – how Google affects our memories

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Information has never been easier to find or record. Within seconds, the Internet lets us find answers to questions that would have remained elusive just a few decades ago. We don’t even have to remember the answers – we can just look them up again.

Now, three psychologists have shown how our memories might react to this omnipresent store of information. They have found that when American students expect to have access to information in the future, they remember that information less well. But there’s a positive flipside: they’re also better at remembering where to find the information again.

The study lends some solid experimental weight to a game of speculative ping-pong that has bounced along for years. In 2008, Nicholas Carr asked if Google was making us stupid in a provocative Atlantic article that raised the prospect of weakening memories, among other potential ills. In his later book, The Shallows, Carr wrote, “The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”

Critics pointed out that Carr had little evidence for his arguments. Others suggested different ways in which the Internet could affect our memories. Writing in Salon, Evan Ratliff cited the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, who noted that people often rely on a shared form of memory. For example, one partner in a married couple might be better at remembering birthdays, while the other might specialise in bank details. Together, they have a “transactive memory”, a collective store of information that each can draw upon.

Ratliff wrote, “Perhaps the Web, then, is like a spouse who is around all the time, with a particular knack for factual memory of all varieties… There have to be doctoral students out there right now, working on clever studies about what having Google in your pocket does to your retentive abilities.” He was partly right. No students were involved, but Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University was on the case, together with Jenny Liu from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel Wegner himself.

First, Sparrow showed that when US students are faced with hard questions, they naturally think about computers. These machines are instinctively connected to the concept of missing knowledge. Sparrow recruited 46 students and asked them a series of trivia questions. Afterwards, they saw a list of words written in different colours and had to name the colours in question. People take longer to do this if the word captures their attention, because they find it more difficult to ignore its meaning and focus on its colour.

Sparrow found that after seeing questions they couldn’t answer, the volunteers’ reaction times were indeed slower if they saw computer-related words (‘Google’, ‘browser’, ‘internet’) than unrelated ones (‘telephone’, ‘paper’, ‘pencil’). She writes, “It seems that when we are faced with a gap in our knowledge, we are primed to turn to the computer to rectify the situation.”

Next, Sparrow asked 60 students to read 40 trivia statements (such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and type them into a computer. Later, they had to write down as many of the statements as they could.

She found that the volunteers remembered fewer facts if they were told that the computer would save their work, than if they thought their words would be erased. If they knew they could look up the statements later, they apparently didn’t make the effort to remember them. “Since search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up,” says Sparrow.

This doesn’t mean that accessible information weakens memories.

Sparrow repeated the trivia experiment with 28 students but this time, after typing in every statement, they were told that their entry had been saved, saved in a specific folder, or erased. Later, they saw 30 statements, half of which matched the earlier ones, and half of which had been subtly altered. When asked if the statements were exactly what they had read, the students were worst at spotting the changes if they thought their words had been saved somewhere. As before, having information on tap obviated the need to memorise it.

However, when asked if the statements were saved or erased, the students were better at identifying the ones that had been saved than the ones that had been erased. If they thought that information would be accessible later, they were worse at remembering the actual trivia, but better at remembering whether it would be accessible.

They even remembered where the statements were stored more accurately than the statements themselves. In a final experiment, Sparrow replayed the trivia game with 34 students, who expected all the statements to be saved into one of several generic folders, named ‘Facts’, ‘Items’, ‘Info’ and so on.

When they were asked to write down as many of the statements as possible, they only remembered a quarter of them. But when Sparrow prompted them with vague identifiers (such as, “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?”), they remembered the location of half of the statements. Sparrow writes, “This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item.”

Of course, this is merely an extreme version of what goes on in our usual social connections. In relationships and workplaces, no single person feels the need to know and remember everything because we can rely on others to fill in the gaps where necessary. We store information through our social connections as well as in our brains. The same thing happens with reference books. I may not remember all the facts and stories in my book shelf but I’ve got a good idea of where to find any particular titbit. The Internet is the same type of external memory, writ large.

Sparrow sums it up best: “[Our] results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. Just as we learn through transactive memory who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer-based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

And perhaps even this is changing. The act of finding information is becoming ever easier as searching becomes a central part of our software. Gmail, for example, is structured around searching rather than folders. Everything from folders to Flickr photos can be tagged to make them easier to find. Rather than remembering where we’ve saved a piece of information, we may end up remembering the sorts of keywords that will allow us to find a forgotten fact. As our technology changes, so do we.

Are we better or worse off for it? Sparrow’s work is hardly going to end a debate that has raged for millennia. Socrates himself feared that the advent of that most dastardly of technologies – the written word – would weaken our memories to our mental detriment. Similar concerns were raised at the advent of newspapers, mass education, the gramophone, and the printing press. Media technology scares are not new. Nor, as Sparrow argues, are they very productive.

“It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

Reference: Sparrow, Liu & Wegner. 2011. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1207745

Image credit to XKCD