This post is also available in Dutch.
Hey, Google! What’s the quickest bike route to Goffert Park? How many ibuprofen can I take today? Oh, and how many millilitres are in a cup again?
Gone are the days when we need to trial-and-error our way across town or dig through the cabinet for a crumpled-up medicine box. Instead, we can use the internet as a kind of external brain that holds onto and instantly retrieves the necessary facts for us. But with this new tool comes a big change in the way we learn and remember information.
Easier to find, harder to remember
When we look something up on the internet, we don’t seem remember it as well as when we get the information by other means. For example, in one study participants looked up random facts (e.g. How old was the first animal in space?) either on the internet or in an encyclopedia. The internet participants performed worse on a later test of their memory and also showed less brain activity in regions that are involved in remembering what something is.
But what is it about the internet that makes us so much worse at remembering? A key factor seems to be knowing how easy it is for us to find the information again. Another study had people find facts on specific websites, either by searching the internet or by simply following a link. The key difference is that in the search group, people knew how to reach the information. In this group, the participants performed worse on a later memory test than those who just received a link. Thus, when people know how to easily access information, they are less likely to remember the information itself.
Easier to find, quicker to delegate
This so-called “Google Effect” in our memory probably arises because when information is so easy to find, actually learning it is redundant. On some level, we know we can retrieve it again quickly, so we offload the task of remembering to the internet. Of course, cognitive offloading is nothing new – we have long delegated our remembering to calendars, address books, lists, and even other people. Yet, the sheer quantity and accessibility of information available online means that this delegation is now taking place on a much greater scale.
Is this a bad thing?
In light of this research, many have sounded the alarm, warning that our reliance on the internet as an external memory prevents us from deeper contemplation, which arises when we make connections and build on a rich structure of memories and knowledge. An alternative perspective is that in our modern information-based society, having a memory full of facts may be less useful than being able to quickly find information on the internet. That is, this change in our mental function simply reflects a change in what is valuable in our environment. Regardless of where you stand in this debate, it’s probably a good idea to commit the most important facts to memory or at least paper, for the inevitable dead battery or power outage.
Author: Rebecca Calcott
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translation: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor translation: Jill Naaijen