What’s the first thing you think of when faced with a difficult (or even a not-so-difficult) question? According to four recent studies, your mind is primed to think about computers.
In the past decade, we have retrained our minds to google just about everything we want to know, according to new research by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel M. Wegner. “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” the researchers, who are based at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard respectively, write in the July issue of Science.
The researchers set out to determine what impact, if any, access to information via Internet search engines has on memory. Their conclusion: When posed a question, people are primed to think of computers, and when they expect to have access to future information, they have lower rates of recall about the actual information and enhanced recall of where they can find the information. For example, you’re not likely to remember the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon chain of associations that leads from the actor to Marlon Brando, but you will remember that you can easily figure it out by going to IMDB.
Computers = Answers
The researchers tested whether people were less likely to remember information if they believed they would have access to it later on. Typing a series of statements into a computer, half of the study subjects were led to believe the computer would save the statements they typed, while the other half was led to believe the information would be erased and that they must remember it themselves. Afterward, participants were told to write down as many statements as they could from memory.
Whether or not participants had been instructed to remember the information had no impact on recall. However, whether or not they believed the information would be available to them later had a negative impact.
Where > What
Another experiment tested participants' ability to remember both information stored and where it was stored on a computer. The results suggested that computer users were more likely to remember the folder a piece of information was stored in than the information itself.
The concept that search has an effect on memory is nothing new and perhaps best illustrated by Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows. But the researchers took a less cautionary stance than Carr did on the changing nature of memory. They suggested that storing information outside of ourselves is nothing new.
“Just as we learn through transactive memory who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer ‘knows’ and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer-based memories,” the researchers wrote. “This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information, although the disadvantages of being constantly ‘wired’ are still being debated. It may be no more than nostalgia at this point...to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets.”