Online search engines may be affecting memory, studies say


A webpage displaying Google Inc.'s home page is seen on a computer monitor. (David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG)
July 14, 2011

Search engines may be changing the way our brains remember information, according to research released Thursday.

In a series of experiments, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues produced evidence that people are more likely to remember things they do not think they can find online and will have a harder time remembering things they think they’ll be able to find online. In addition, people are better at remembering where to look for information on the Internet than they are remembering the information itself, the studies found.

“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” Sparrow said in a news release issued with the research, which was published in the journal Science. “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.”

In the paper, “Google Effects on Memory: Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” the researchers described a set of four experiments.

In the first, the researchers asked 46 Harvard University undergraduates a series of true-false questions such as, “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” and then showed them words in different colors. When the words were related to the Internet, such as Google or Yahoo, the students responded more slowly, indicating they were already thinking about browsing the Web for the answers.

The researchers then gave 60 students 40 statements and asked them to type the information on a computer. Those who were told the information would be saved had a much harder time remembering the statements than those who were told it would be erased.

In the third test, 28 Columbia students were asked a series of trivia questions and allowed to take notes. The students who were told the information would be saved in one of six computer folders had a harder time remembering the information than those who were told it would be erased.

In the last experiment, 34 Columbia undergrads were told the same information would be saved in files with names such as “facts,” “data” and “names.” The students remembered the file names better than the information itself, the researchers found.

The findings show that “there is no doubt that our strategies are shifting in learning,” Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University, told Science in an accompanying article. “Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can offload some of our memory demands onto machines.”

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