Researchers have found that the widespread use of search engines and online databases is affecting the way people remember information. To know whether people were more likely to remember information that could be easily retrieved from a computer, Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia and her collaborators, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, staged different memory experiments, reports the New York Times.
In one experiment where participants typed 40 bits of trivia, the team found that 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,” wrote the authors.
A second experiment was aimed at determining whether computer accessibility affects precisely what we remember.
“If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one colour in their flag, for example,” the researchers wrote, “do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?”
In this case, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. The researchers were surprised to find that people seemed better able to recall the folder.
“That kind of blew my mind,” Dr. Sparrow said.
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.
The Internet’s effects on memory are still largely unexplored, Dr. Sparrow said, adding that her experiments had led her to conclude that the Internet has become our primary external storage system.
“Human memory,” she said, “is adapting to new communications technology.”
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