Is Google Making Us Forgetful? (Not Sure, Let's Look It Up Online)


We have begun to live in a world in which Google (GOOG) helps determine what we remember, and, perhaps more importantly, what we forget. A new set of studies in the journal Science raises the question of whether Google affects human memory.

Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor at Columbia University, reports in a research paper, Searching for the Google Effect on People's Memory, that her results "support a growing belief that people are using the Internet as a personal memory bank: the so-called Google effect." The journal also reports that "To test this idea, Sparrow devised a series of offline experiments to catch people in the act of relying on future access to information -- say, a Google search -- rather than memorizing the information themselves." The conclusions from the series of four studies: Yes, the awareness that we can look things up easily later makes our memories worse. And, as the Sparrow points out, when it comes to retrieving that data from online sources, "We're remarkably efficient."

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But does it matter? That's a question more of opinion than science. We live in a world in which access to information is nearly limitless, as is much interpretation of that information. One result of this is that people are smarter, in a broad sense of that word. Twenty years ago, it might have taken days in a library to retrieve the quantity of data on a subject that a few Google searches can now garner, especially by people are expert and adroit at the use of search engines. The amount of information Google can provide on any given subject would overwhelm most human memories if people chose to review even a modest number of results. To the extent that the ability to access information is part of intelligence, Google makes people smarter.

So, what about the ability of people to recall -- on their own -- entire Shakespeare plays or the Periodic Table of the Elements? Certainly there is some information that it's important we store in our personal biological memories. A Ph.D. student may want to master some material completely for later use. A cook may want to remember every recipe he or she uses with any regularity. And we all want doctors to have access to as much medical lore as possible in their heads -- not on their smartphones.

What's nearly certain is that we used to have to memorize much of what we "know" to remember it. Now that Google -- and with it, the vast data reserves of the Internet -- can be carried around on tablets, laptops and smartphones, the long era in which the capacity of the human mind to recall critical information is a key factor in our intelligence may have passed.

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