A research in the journal Science suggests that computers and the internet may be altering the quality of our memory. Psychology experiments showed that when people were presented with difficult questions, they began to think of computers. When volunteers knew that facts would be available on a computer later, they had poor recollection of answers but enhanced recollection of where they were stored.
Researchers believe that internet acts as a “trans-active memory” that people depend upon to remember for them. Lead author Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University explained that trans-active memory “is an idea that there are external memory sources – really storage places that exist in other people. There are people who are experts in certain things and we allow them to be, [to] make them responsible for certain kinds of information.”
Co-author of the paper Daniel Wegner, now at Harvard University, first suggested the transactive memory concept in a book chapter titled Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships, finding that long-term couples trusted each other to act as one another’s memory banks. Dr Sparrow said, ”I really think the internet has become a form of this transactive memory, and I wanted to test it.”
The foremost part of the team’s research was to examine whether subjects were “fit” to think about computers and the internet when confronted with difficult questions. To do that, the team employed what is known as a modified Stroop test. The standard Stroop test assesses how long it takes for a volunteer to read a color word when the word itself is a different colour – for example, the word “green” written in blue.
Reaction times heighten when, instead of colour words, volunteers are asked to read words about topics they may already be thinking about. In this manner the team demonstrated that, after presenting subjects with difficult true/false questions, reaction times to internet-related conditions were visibly longer, indicating that when volunteers did not know the answer, they were already considering the idea of obtaining it through a computer.
A more assuring experiment allowed a stream of facts to the volunteers, with half of the volunteers told to file them away in a number of folders on a computer, and half told that the facts would be erased. When asked to remember the facts, those who knew the information would not be available later performed way better than those who filed the information away. But those who anticipated the information would be available were outstandingly good at recollecting in which folder they had stored the information.
Dr Sparrow said, ”This suggests that for the things we can find online, we tend keep it online as far as memory is concerned – we keep it externally stored.” She explained that the aptness of volunteers to recollect the location of the information, rather than the information itself, is a sign that people are not getting less able to remember things, but simply organising vast amounts of available information in a more accessible way. ”I don’t think Google is making us stupid – we’re just changing the way that we’re remembering things… If you can find stuff online even while you’re walking down the street these days, then the skill to have, the thing to remember, is where to go to find the information. It’s just like it would be with people – the skill to have is to remember who to go see about [specific topics].”