Monday, July 18, 2011

Is Google Ruining Your Memory?

By Kristen Seabolt

Albert Einstein once said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” Well, according to a study released last week by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of Psychology at Columbia University, people have truly taken that advice to heart.

In the recent study, Dr. Sparrow and other scientists performed memory experiments on participants to examine the effects of the internet on a human’s memory. In one of the experiments, they wanted to see if people were more or less likely to remember information that could easily be retrieved from a computer. In the study, participants were asked to type 40 pieces of trivia into a computer. Scientists told half of the group that the bits of trivia would be saved on the computer, and the other half that the information would be erased. Long story short, the subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. Likewise, those who thought they could find the information later made no effort to memorize the trivia statements.

Another experiment examined whether having access to a computer affects what a person remembers. In this study, participants were asked to remember both a trivia statement AND which of five folders the statement was saved in on the computer. The unexpected conclusion: participants were more likely to remember the folder the statement was saved in than the statement itself.

So, is the internet making us dumber? Or is it simply changing how our minds store information? How many times in your day-to-day life do you use spell-check, an online calculator,, Wikipedia or Google? Instead of taking a second to think about an answer, we automatically type. For example, my home screen when I get on the internet is Google.

The scientists in the study think that humans are relying on “transactive memory,” (we rely on other people and reference materials around us to store information for us rather than storing it ourselves). It is a scary thought, but could also just be that our minds are adapting to the new types of technology around us, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would like to think that we are intelligent beings and that if technology ever failed us that our minds would store information the old fashioned way.

See if Google has rewired the way your brain thinks by taking this Washington Post quiz.

Kristen Seabolt is an Associate Account Executive at Maroon PR. Contact her at

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