This is your brain on Google

People are outsourcing memory to the Internet, concludes a new study, Google Effects on Memory, published in Science.

Harvard students were asked to type 40 pieces of trivia, such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into computers. Those told the information would be erased remembered more than those told it would be saved.

“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 authors write.

Columbia undergrads remembered where they stored their information better than they were able to recall the information itself.

The Internet has become our primary external storage system, researcher Betsy Sparrow says. “Human memory is adapting to new communications technology.”

Education theorists disagree on whether memory matters, writes Forbes’ columnist Olga Khazan.

Author Don Tapscott advocated the no-memorization agenda back in 2008, saying that rote learning should be phased out of schools because, “teachers are no longer the fountains of knowledge; the Internet is.” Instead, he and others argue that children should be taught to better parse the constant feed of information they’re bombarded with. (He’s somewhat late to the game, however, since the popularity of memorization has been declining in schools since the early 1980s – nearly a decade before most kids would be getting on the Internet at home.)

. . . Of course, for every education reformer there is an equal and opposite education reformer. Recently, there have been some fairly convincing arguments coming from the other side – that kids need more memorization training so that society can become more innately knowledgeable, not less.

William Klemm, a neuroscience professor at Texas A&M University, has written several screeds decrying teaching methods that leave out a critical component of intelligence: memory. “Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot,” he says, arguing that memorization both improves thinking and arms us with the facts to defend our arguments.

The more you know, the easier it is to seek out new information, evaluate it and do something with it.  And remember it.

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Comments

  1. Computer designers recognize a trade-off between speed of access and storage capacity. Why expect that natural selection would have ignored this in the design of the brain?
    Memory is convenient. Consider how long you retain a phone number when you look it up in the yellow pages. It’s gone by the third ring.
    Normal methods of schooling train students into regarding facts as disposable, useful only until the quarter final is over.

  2. Even the co-founder of Wikipedia says that “the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it”.

    http://costofcollege.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/wikipedia-co-founder-says-we-need-to-memorize-things-not-just-google-it/

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There’s no problem with this, so long as the memory is still being used for (hopefully more important) things. It just means *more* memory, and that’s good, right?

    Of course, if you are “outsourcing” memory function, and not just particular memory, you’ll start having memory atrophy.

    And that’s bad, right?