‘Remember me on this computer’ has become an all too common preference in today’s Information Age. Has it come to this — that humans cannot even remember the password to the system they use to store information, let alone remember the information itself? If you’re an objector to the increasing use of the Internet, then you may have found yourself googling “Is the Internet making us stupid?” without even realising that this first instinct might be the root cause of this perceived increase in daftness.
It is not so much that the Internet itself is making us stupid but rather that we do not commit information to memory that we believe we can find easily again online. This is known as the ‘Google effect’, or digital amnesia. The increasing reliance on the Internet as a personal memory bank for information has been tested in several different studies. The most notable study was conducted by Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues at Columbia University. Sparrow’s study found that the Internet has changed the way that people handle and store information. According to these researchers, when information on the Internet is easy to find, people are more likely remember where they found it, rather than remember the information itself. On the flip side, when information is less accessible online, it is more easily remembered. In other words, our brains rely on the Internet for memory much in the same way people used to rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker in the days prior to the Internet.
when information on the Internet is easy to find, people are more likely remember where they found it, rather than remember the information itself.
However, that is not to say that the cognitive effects of the Internet are inconsequential. Another recent study (you’ve probably forgotten about it by now) suggests that 90% of us are suffering from digital amnesia and more than 49% of people do not know their partner’s mobile number by heart. So while we may be remembering where to find information on the Internet, it still stands that we are not remembering that information at all. According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, this digital amnesia has had a negative impact on our culture, emotion, and richness of thought. Ultimately, according to Carr, the more information you commit to memory, the more material you have to work on and think about. Carr argues that, as a result of the Google effect, our thought and reasoning have become more shallow and superficial, because we have less information stored on hand. Dr Maria Wimber, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, sides with Carr and shares her concerns that the Google effect may even extend to personal memories and images as people have become increasingly reliant on smartphones to record and store personal moments. A Fairfield University study in 2003 led by Linda Henkel supports Carr’s reason for concern as it found that taking photos reduces our capacity for recall. Participants were asked to look around a museum, and those who took photos of each object remembered fewer objects and details about them than those who simply observed.
Ultimately, it seems that what is considered important to society is changing. Some argue that the ancient art of memory has lost its foothold and that this shift needs to be accommodated in the way that key role players, like teachers or professors, teach information. Others, like Carr, argue that the Internet is making us shallow thinkers, who are unable to digest and remember information like speeches or even short songs. Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, it should be clear that there is a strong need for creativity and digital innovation to answer the question: “how do you teach people to think differently in today’s information society?”.
Finally, in order to safeguard our memory, it is important to remember that we only remember the information that we pay attention to. A Microsoft study found that the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. This means that, in today’s society of information overload, we will have to work that much harder to pay attention and commit information to memory. Dr Wimber suggests that the best way to make information stick is to occasionally sit back and mentally refresh what you have learnt or experienced a minute, an hour or a day ago.
So, despite the likelihood that you’ve forgotten everything you’ve read by now, try to answer this question without looking back: “What is the percentage of people who do not know their partner’s mobile number by heart?”. In fact, you might even find that you are one of them.
Read more on the Google effect here:
Sparrow’s study on the cognitive effects of having information at our fingertips
Henkel’s study on the way photography impedes memory