A Columbia University study has found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.
The research was conducted by Columbia psychologist Betsy Sparrow and presented in a paper Science magazine published entitled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.”
In that paper, Sparrow makes the case that rather than remembering things, we now simply retain the knowledge of how to find the information we need when we need it. In other words, the Internet as a whole has become what a major example of what psychologists refer to as "transactive memory."
The Columbia press release has some nitty-gritty details of the study. But essentially, participants were asked to answer a series of difficult trivia questions, followed immediately by testing response times to color-coded words. The participants had much shorter reaction times for words like "Google" and "Yahoo," indicating that the search engines were already being processed as ways to find the answers to these questions.
Then, the trivia questions were rephrased as statements, and tested for recall when they believed that the statements were available for later retrieval - like a saved search query - and when they believed it was not. When they thought they would be able to review the statement again later, recall was much lower.
Third, participants were presented with the same trivia statements, which were either saved in a particular spot or erased, and again, any statement which was erased had a higher rate of recall. Finally, participants were more able to remember the folders where information was being kept than they were the information itself.
The implications of this research are still being explored. But it could have vast application to teaching and training fields.
And honestly, who among Google's billion-plus visitors can honestly say that they've never skimped out on memorization (of directions, of phone numbers, of important dates, et cetera) when they knew that the search giant was keeping track of it for us?