Is Google replacing our memory?

Is Google replacing our memory?

Summary: A Columbia University study has found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.

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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?

Topics: Apps, Google, Social Enterprise

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49 comments
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  • google is making us smarter

    unlike others peddling proprietary software that makes our mind numb.
    Linux Geek
    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @Linux Geek Will so<a href="http://vb.maas1.com/">m</a>eone please make a list of things I am supposed to remember? I bet nobody can crea<a href="http://www.tran33m.com/vb/">t</a>e one without referencing Google.
      alasiri
      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

        @alasiri
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        epark732
      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

        @alasiri
        I understand the brain is very lazy muscle so for something that is available free why should it work.
        Isint it something like the dictionary.


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  • Very interesting, evolution at work

    This is good and bad. Learning how to find answers is far, far superior to learning answers for the most part. You can't remember everything but if you know how to look you can always find your answer. As knowledge becomes more prevelant we will see our school systems change more rapidly to adapt to the vast amount of data humankind has amassed. Which will allow children to learn more quickly. 10 years from now a child graduating high school will know how to leverage the insane amounts of knowledge out there.

    Then there is the downside. As technology becomes integrated into our lives at this level, to a point where it becomes an extension of ourselves, we become much more vulnerable. If a major disaster did happen and much of mankind, infrastructure and data systems were all suddenly wiped out people could could be in trouble. We won't know how to do anything.

    So, Google could be helping mankind on the path to enlightenment, or it could be helping be the final nail in the eventual human coffin.
    LiquidLearner
    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @LiquidLearner

      +1!

      I've been thinking pretty much the same thing for a long time. Actually, it started with this episode of Outer Limits, which aired more than 14 years ago:

      http://www.tv.com/episode/21470/summary.html

      I agree with everyone else who said that knowing how to find it is better than knowing it, whether it be online or in books. I do hope that they continue teaching kids library skills, just in case it does eventually become necessary to revert to the "old fashioned" method of finding information.
      rcnut
      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

        @rcnut
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        epark732
      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

        @rcnut I don't think human memory is replaced by Google, but enhanced by it.
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      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

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    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @LiquidLearner Before the internet, we'd search in dictionaries or call people for answers, now we just search for it in seconds, it's a good evolution but it does make most people kind of lazy

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  • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

    I was worried, until I heard it was psychology. Have a degree in it, no respect for it (except the small hard science part) and I'll put this with all the other psych studies no-one could replicate or falsified.

    I also can't seem to find how many participants were in the study and if they were part of the usual "random" population - that is, university students.
    tonymcs1
    • Agree

      @tonymcs@...
      Yes, most of psychologies don't understand basic scientific principles.
      The most common example is when testing on children ability they don't control for genetics because it would be politically incorrect as if reality cares about what is politically correct or not.
      lass23
    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @tonymcs@... This study seems to signal that we are adapting to the need to remember more by developing greater contextual memories for where the information can be found later. This reminds me a lot of Memolane.com - which is basically a tool for aggregating personal social media history. The more often I view my lane, the stronger the relationship in my recall for the contextual cues for the actual memories themselves. I can recognize a familiar tweet, but then I see my lane and am given the location for it based on a Foursquare check-in, and a photo of the room I made it in from a Picasa image, etc. [url=http://www.theseattleplumber.com]plumber seattle[/url] | [url=http://www.landscape-houston.com]landscaping houston[/url]
      baconman84
  • So will this research be done with refernce books also

    as I do not see how this differs from what has come before: rather than remembering things, we now simply retain the knowledge of how to find the information we need when we need it, when obtaining it from books.

    The only thing that has changed is that instead of relooking up the information in a book, or from notes, people just relook up information from the internet, or bookedmarked pages.
    :|
    Tim Cook
    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @Mister Spock Exactly. I've been doing it since way before there was an internet or search.
      Skippy99
    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @Mister Spock
      Exactly. Researchers are forgetting keys things, like the fact that we've had information at our fingertips for thousands of years since humans learned to write. Now, I'd even venture to say we have to remember more, because before, there were just books, now there are books, and web sites. Now we have to remember the web addresses for all of the information we need, as well as remembering places *not* to go for information.
      Liath.WW
      • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

        @Liath.WW Never mind memory Google is replacing all manor of things books, shops etc etc. Google is replacing life itself :)
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    • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

      @Mister Spock Correct...this is nothing new or exciting. Books, grandma, father, friends and remember those buildings called libraries? WHy are you wasting time writing about this? Nothing has changed except we can do it all from our desks...sitting down, getting fatter and out of shape...that's the big thing to write about
      Bradish1
  • RE: Is Google replacing our memory?

    Remember when people started storing information in cave paintings instead of their brains? Yup, our memory's just been going downhill ever since.

    Blame those kids and their newfangled cave paintings.
    mikeabundo