Study says humans now use the internet as our main ‘memory’ – instead of our heads
The Internet is becoming our main source of memory instead of our own brains, a study has concluded.
In the age of Google, our minds are adapting so that we are experts at knowing where to find information even though we don’t recall what it is.
The researchers found that when we want to know something we use the Internet as an ‘external memory’ just as computers use an external hard drive.
Nowadays we are so reliant on our smart phones and laptops that we go into ‘withdrawal when we can’t find out something immediately’.
And such is our dependence that having our Internet connection severed is growing ‘more and more like losing a friend’.
Researchers from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Columbia University in the U.S. carried out four tests to check their theory.
They involved giving test participants a trivia quiz and then seeing whether they recognised computer-related words more quickly than other words.
The other tests involved seeing if people remembered 40 pieces information they would typically later have normally looked up.
The third and fourth parts of the study involved checking how well people remember where to look up information on-line and whether or not they remembered the location more than the actual data.
The results showed that when people don’t believe they will need information for a later test, they do not recall it at the same rate as when they do believe they will need it.
In fact, some of those in the study ‘actively did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read’, the paper says.
‘People actively do not make the effort to remember when they think they can look up information later,’ says the study
The other results showed that when continuous Internet access is expected, people are better at remembering where they can find it than the details.
The study was lead by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor at the department of psychology at Columbia University.
In their paper, the researchers say that we now have access to the Internet 24 hours a day meaning we are ‘seldom offline unless by choice’ and it is ‘hard to remember how we found information before the Internet became a ubiquitous presence in our lives’.
The paper reads: ‘The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger.
‘No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue.
‘When faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.
‘The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.’
The study is not the first to touch on such anxieties and similar fears were addressed in ‘The Shallows: How the Internet is rewiring our brains’, a book released last year.
Its author, American technologist Nicholas Carr, talks of how we are unable to concentrate for long periods because of how using the web has affected us.
In research he commissioned for the book, test subjects said they were unable to read copies of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ because their minds had been altered.
Others were disturbed at how they could only think in ‘staccato’ bursts because they had become little more than ‘decoders of information’.