Scientists Examine What Having Constant Access to Information Does to Our Memory

Several years ago, tech writer Nicholas Carr sparked a debate with his thought-provoking Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  In it, Carr suggested that not only is the Internet shaping our lives – it’s physically changing our the way that our brains function.

“[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Intrigued by this question, researchers from UW-Madison, Columbia, Harvard took a closer look at what having constant access to information does to our capacity to retain information, reports Interesting Engineering.  “Together, they conducted a series of experiments with student volunteers which provides support for the contention that the Internet has an effect on our memory.”

In one experiment, students were asked to write down 40 pieces of trivia.  Some were told that their answers would be recorded, others were told that they would be erased.  When asked later to write down as many statements as they could remember, those who were told that their answers would be erased remembered more statements that those who thought they would be recorded.

In another experiment, a group performed a similar task, but everyone was told their work would be saved in folders with labels.  When asked to recall the written statements, students could only recall 25% of them.  But when asked in which folder a specific statement had been saved, they were able to identify 50% of the folders.

The experiments are telling, although not surprising.  Both demonstrate that we process and remember information differently when we know that we have technology backing us up.

Although exacerbated by the Intenet, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  I make a grocery list before going to the store.  As a student, I took notes in class.  As a librarian of a certain age, I even used a physical card catalog to locate library materials.  Pencils, notebooks, card catalogs, books – these are all technologies that have long enabled us to record information so that we don’t have to have perfect recall.

Interesting stuff.  Check out the article for a further exploration of this phenomenon going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.