Friday, July 15, 2011

The Internet Affects Memory?

This NYTimes story reports on research that finds people, when they expect a computer to save information, are less likely to remember it.  I wrote about this in 2009 and also here about Google making us stupid, but not in detail.

As the story says:
The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. “Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write. 
This probably falls in the Google is Killing Our Brain category of studies.  But this and other results from the study (read the article, it's quite short) suggest to me not a cause-and-effect from computers and the Internet, but rather the power of motivation in memory.  I'm not motivated to remember if I think a computer -- or my wife -- is gonna do it for me.  Less motivation =  less deeper processing = less remembering of stuff.  And that can have real consequences.  More on that in a moment.

Here's where it gets kinda interesting:
The experiment explores an aspect of what is known as transactive memory — the notion that we rely on our family, friends and co-workers as well as reference material to store information for us.  
Which is basically what we've been suggesting all along, and makes personal referrals and the wisdom of the crowd -- via Facebook or Twitter or Google+ -- an important change in the way we use memory and make decisions.  There is strong research that suggests the referrals of friends carry more weight than other, even more authoritative, sources.

The downside?

Like a muscle, memory needs to be exercised.  Sure, with mobile media we can always look something up.  Google is but a peck of a smartphone away.  But there's a hell of a lot to be said for having a base of knowledge to draw on.  That base influences how we process new information, how we pick up on important changes, how we spot trends or subtle differences, indeed how we make sense of our world.  The ability to look something up is neat and cool and convenient, but a heavy reliance on that ability may have dramatic negative affects as well, both in social knowledge but also political knowledge.

UPDATE: The Atlantic has a nice piece on this, just available. Strongly recommended.

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