The Web Is Your New Memory

Research suggests that we no longer remember facts, because we know the Web will do it for us

Image: Nerses Hakobyan/iStockphoto

14 July 2011—The idea that the Internet has become a sort of "hive mind" is certainly not new, but researchers are still figuring out how the hive mind affects how our own minds work. A study published in today’s Science suggests that the Internet has changed how we remember facts. The study shows that the Web has become a sort of external hard drive for factual information. So instead of remembering specific details, such as who directed the film Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), we remember the name of the website where we can look up that information (IMDb).

"It’s not really that different from what we’ve always done," says Betsy Sparrow, the psychologist at Columbia University who led the study. Indeed, many of our trusted Web resources are merely online versions of print references—maps and dictionaries, for example—that we used to consult. "But the Internet is more prevalent, and people are more aware that they’re using it in this way," she says.

The study authors tested this hypothesis by giving subjects a list of facts they were unlikely to know, such as "The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry over Texas in February 2003," then had them type them into a computer. As the subjects typed in a fact, they would receive a message on the computer screen telling them that the item had been saved in one of five folders, each with a different name. When quizzed afterward, most subjects were unable to remember the details of the facts, but about 30 percent recalled the name of the folder where the information was stored. "This is consistent with the long history of studies showing that people remember contextual clues that can help them remember the relevant information," says Michael Mozer, a memory researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who did not participate in the research.

Only when the subjects received a message that the factoid they typed in would be erased did their performance on the memory tests improve, supporting the notion that people trust computers and the Internet to store information. "It’s clear that the Internet and computers have a lot of meaning to us," says Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied how online search affects brain activity but was not involved in the Science study. Historically, people have relied on physical hive minds made up of friends and colleagues to help them remember specific details, a phenomenon social psychologists call transactive memory. The study authors propose that the Internet now fills this role, becoming the ultimate know-it-all friend whom we can access anytime.

The study also suggests that we may not be able to mull over fact-based questions without thinking of Internet search tools. In a separate experiment, the researchers followed trivia questions with an exercise called the Stroop task. The exercise presents subjects with words in colored ink and asks them to identify the color. The classic example involves color names spelled out in an ink of a different color, such as the word "green" in red ink. When asked to call out the color of the ink, people often read the word instead of identifying the color. But Sparrow and her coauthors used the test to compare computer-related words, such as "Google" and "Yahoo," with unrelated brand names, such as Target and Nike. They found that the subjects had a more difficult time identifying the color when the words Google and Yahoo were onscreen, implying that they were somehow distracted by the terms. This effect was especially evident when the preceding trivia questions had been challenging and thus more likely to prompt an online search.

It’s worth noting that all the subjects in the study were college students, which means they’ve grown up using the Internet as a resource. Still, Sparrow suspects that the results would have been similar with older adults. "The effect might be stronger in younger people, but I think people have adapted to this technology pretty quickly," she says.

UCLA’s Small agrees. "My guess is that you would see this effect in older subjects," he says. "The younger people may have grown up with this technology, but the digital immigrants are catching up."

About the Author

Erica Westly is a freelance science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the July 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, she reported on how engineers use technology to demystify the black art of barbecue.

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