Human Brain Adopts Internet as Memory Substitute
Throughout history, curmudgeonly scholars have argued that information technology makes people more stupid. Socrates complained that the written word would lead to forgetfulness, and bookmakers of the Renaissance feared the printing press would lead to a loss of studiousness as cheap books fell into the hands of the unworthy. Recently, journalists and scientists have made similar claims about the Internet in general and search engines in particular. After all, why learn something when you can just look it up?
Now researchers have tested this notion through a number of experiments that probe the relationship between memory and the Internet. The results imply that people have shifted from remembering specific facts to remembering where on the Internet they can go to find those facts.
Although this memory-formation phenomenon applies to all information sources, from the written word to knowledgeable friends, the sheer scale of information available on the Internet makes it a mental crutch of unique scale.
"We found that if people have a lot of questions they can't answer, the automatic thing that comes to mind is the Internet or computers," said Betsy Sparrow, a professor of psychology at Columbia University who was the main author of the study.
According to a paper published online in Science Express, the researchers presented their subjects, a group of college students, with a number of trivia questions and with maps of computer folders where the answers to those questions reside. More students were able to remember where the information had been saved than remember the details of the information.
Most people have experienced this firsthand. For example, when you can’t remember the name of the lead actress in "Titanic" or the year "Gone with the Wind" was made, you know IMDB.com will have the answer.
It was a similar experience that led Sparrow to delve into this realm of research to begin with.
"I was watching 'Gaslight' and knew I’d seen one of the actresses before, but couldn’t remember her name," said Sparrow, referring to Angela Lansbury, then in her late teens. "I immediately turned to IMDB ― and then began to wonder what people used to do before the Internet when they didn’t know the answers to questions."
The study implies that if we think we’ll be able to look something up again in the future, we won’t bother to remember it when we first look it up. However, if we believe that the information storage is unreliable, such as a Web page that might get taken down or a file that might get deleted, then our brains automatically commit to remembering the actual facts in addition to the location.
"Participants were given trivia statements like, 'An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain,' and asked to type them into a computer," said Sparrow. "After each statement, they pressed 'enter' and were either told the statement had been saved or erased. They later better remembered the statements they thought had been erased."
Sparrow believes such experiences train the brain to turn other people, the Internet and reference books into external memory sources. But unlike Socrates in railing against the invention of writing, the researchers argue that relying on external memory sources (whether in the form of the written word or the Internet) is not necessarily detrimental.
"We've always used other people as transactive (i.e., external) memory," said Sparrow. "Let's say you work in a business where someone knows how to do a purchase order. You'll always go to that person and not learn it yourself. In some sense the Internet is more reliable and also more democratic because everyone has access to the same resources."