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July 31, 2011

The Google Effect - Why the Internet May Hurt Your Memory

Want to know how many movies Johnny Depp has been in throughout his career? How about the President's birthday? Or the perfect temperature to cook a turkey? Easy, just Google it!

The advent of the Internet has brought us an infinite amount of information, readily available at the click of a button. From dancing birds and obscure trivia to real-time updates on global affairs - you name it, you can find it online. Educators make use of the availability of online information frequently as learning tools for students, and the plethora of scholarly information accessible by students allows for the synthesis of a very rich body of knowledge. It is abundantly clear that the Internet has had incredibly positive effects on the exchange of information on both a local and global scale.

However, the availability of this massive body of information has also had some unexpected negative effects. Several studies by Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner on the effects of having all of this information so readily available reports that people do experience a deficit in recall when they know information will be available to them online. They show how subjects from four different studies are actually primed to think about computers when given difficult questions. Furthermore, when participants expected to be able to access the information later, they not only had lower rates of recall than for information they would not be able to access later, but (and most interestingly) they also showed enhanced recall for where to access this information in the future.

While the article does not directly site any cognitive deficits that arise from the availability of information on the Internet, it is easy to speculate on potential damages. One concern is that students of the "information age" may not be using their brains to encode information as fully as students of generations past. Does this lack of brain "exercise" have further negative consequences for its ability to process information? Little is known about the consequences of always being "plugged in". Or, does this external storage space allow our brains more processing capacity for other, perhaps more important tasks and allow us to store more useful information? More likely, as the authors of this study argue, we are simply evolving. Our brains are adapting to use the Internet as an extra storage space, which has given us the advantage of having a virtually limitless amount of information at our fingertips.

This adaptive phenomenon is also an eloquent demonstration of the social nature of human beings. The Internet is a social form of information storage - we share information with others, and depend on others sharing information with us. We have begun to integrate technology into every bit of our lives, and we feel disconnected from work and our peers without our cell phones and Internet.

As the authors state, "we are becoming symbiotic with our computers", and whether this is a good thing is still up for debate. It will be interesting to see how the use of the Internet and the continuing development of more and more ways to stay connected affect our brains' ability to process and learn new information, and change the way we deal with information in the years to come.

Reference: Sparrow, Betsy, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner. "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips." AAAS, 14 July 2011.
Posted by      Sophie L. at 7:39 PM MDT
Tags: learning, memory


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