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Has the Internet become an external hard drive for our brains?

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog.

A question posed by US-based science and technology think tank and website Edge was “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Several psychologists answered that it was becoming an extension of their minds. “The Internet is a kind of collective memory,’ wrote Stephen Kosslyn (Harvard University). “When I write with a browser open in the background, it feels like the browser is an extension of myself.”

A research team led by Betsy Sparrow has now tested the idea that the Internet really has become a kind of memory prosthesis. First they showed that difficult questions prompted dozens of undergrad participants to think automatically of computers and search engines. Participants tackled either easy or difficult trivia questions and then completed a version of the classic Stroop task: they had to look at a series of words and say what colour ink they were written in. After difficult questions, participants were extra slow at naming the colour of words like “Google”. This is a sign that the search engine concept was salient in their minds and therefore interfered more with the process of colour naming.

Next, a group of dozens more undergrad participants read 40 trivia statements and then typed them into a computer. Half the participants were told that the computer would save their entry, the others were told the entries would be deleted. Participants in the “saved” condition performed worse at a subsequent recall test of the statements, as if they’d relied on the computer as an external memory store. Half the participants in both conditions had been instructed explicitly to try to remember the statements, but this made no difference to their memory performance. “Participants were more impacted by the cue that information would or would not be available to them, regardless of whether they thought they would be tested on it,” the researchers said.

In another task, a group of participants read trivia statements and then typed them out, with a message telling them which folder the statement had been saved in. Ten minutes later they wrote out as many of the statements as they could, and then they attempted to recall which folder each statement, identified by a single prompt, had been saved to (e.g. “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?”). The striking finding here is that participants were better at remembering the location of the statements than the statements themselves. What’s more, they were more likely to remember the location of statements which they’d failed to recall. It’s as if we’ve become adept at using computers to store knowledge for us, and we’re better at remembering where information is stored than the information itself.

“This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item,” the researchers said. “One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory – to include the computer and online searches as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.”

Post-script

The issue of whether and how the Internet is changing our brains and the way we think tends to generate a lot of hyperbole and hot air. There is in fact a long history of technology exciting such reactions. Against that context, it’s refreshing to have some new, relevant data (also see here) as opposed to yet more excitable conjecture. However, it’s important to keep these new findings in perspective: they hint at how the Internet could be altering our memory habits, but they haven’t demonstrated that this is any different from other forms of memory support. For example, similar results might have been obtained if trivia statements had been written in notebooks or told to friends, as opposed to typed into a computer. Of course it pays to note that the present study didn’t actually involve the Internet at all. And there’s also no evidence here of any irreversible effects  – our minds are likely adapting to technology all the time, as they do to everything else, but there’s no reason they couldn’t adapt back again if necessary.

B Sparrow, J Liu, and DM Wegner (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science : 10.1126/science.1207745

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Image: Internet LAN cables are pictured in this photo illustration. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne. 

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