How the Internet Affects Our Memories: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips
"Before the printed book, Memory ruled daily life… (…)
The elder Seneca (c. 55 B.C.-A.D. 37), a famous teacher of rhetoric, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard only once many years before. He would impress his students by asking each member of a class of two hundred to recite lines of poetry, and then he would recite all the lines they had quoted—in reverse order, from last to first.”
"The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”
"We investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags—or immediately think to go online to find out? Our research then tested if, once information has been accessed, our internal encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself. (…)
Participants apparently did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read. Since search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up. (…)
The social form of information storage is also reflected in the findings that people forget items they think will be available externally, and remember items they think will not be available. And transactive memory is also evident when people seem better able to remember which computer folder an item has been stored in than the identity of the item itself. These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. 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. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. 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 that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”
— B. Sparrow (Department of Psychology, Columbia University), J. Liu (University of Wisconsin–Madison), D. M. Wegner (Harvard University), ☞ Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science, 5 August 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6043, pp. 776-778
Daniel M. Wegner comment:
"Groups of people commonly depend on one another for memory in this way — not by all knowing the same thing, but by specializing. And now we’ve added our computing devices to the network, depending for memory not just on people but also on a cloud of linked people and specialized information-filled devices.
We have all become a great cybermind. As long as we are connected to our machines through talk and keystrokes, we can all be part of the biggest, smartest mind ever. It is only when we are trapped for a moment without our Internet link that we return to our own humble little personal minds, tumbling back to earth from our flotation devices in the cloud.”
The Extended Mind
"Why do we engage in reconsolidation? One theory is that reconsolidation helps ensure our memories are kept up to date, interpreted in light of recent experience. The brain has no interest in immaculate recall – it’s only interested in the past to the extent it helps us make sense of the future. By having memories that constantly change, we ensure that the memories stored inside our mental file cabinets are mostly relevant.
Of course, reconsolidation theory poses problems for the fidelity of memory. Although our memories always feel true – like a literal recording of the past – they’re mostly not, since they’re always being edited and bent by what we think now. And now. And now. (See the work of Elizabeth Loftus for more on memory inaccuracy.)
And this is where the internet comes in. One of the virtues of transactive memory is that it acts like a fact-check, helping ensure we don’t all descend into selfish solipsism. By sharing and comparing our memories, we can ensure that we still have some facts in common, that we all haven’t disappeared down the private rabbit hole of our own reconsolidations. In this sense, instinctually wanting to Google information – to not entrust trivia to the fallible brain – is a perfectly healthy impulse. (I’ve used Google to correct my errant memories thousands of times.) I don’t think it’s a sign that technology is rotting our cortex – I think it shows that we’re wise enough to outsource a skill we’re not very good at. Because while the web enables all sorts of other biases – it lets us filter news, for instance, to confirm what we already believe – the use of the web as a vessel of transactive memory is mostly virtuous. We save hard drive space for what matters, while at the same time improving the accuracy of recall.
PS. If you’d like a contrarian take, here’s Nicholas Carr:
If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?”
☞ Amara D. Angelica, Google is destroying your memory, KurzweilAI
☞ Thomas Metzinger on How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think
☞ Rolf Fobelli: News is to the mind what sugar is to the body, Lapidarium notes
☞ Luciano Floridi on the future development of the information society
☞ The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks
☞ Memory tag on Lapidarium notes