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Study shows the internet is changing the way we remember

A fluoroscope X-ray of a hard drive. The spindle and platters are visible.
A fluoroscope X-ray of a hard drive. The spindle and platters are visible.
Kevin Collins/Flickr

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Is the internet changing the way our brains remember things? That’s the sneaking suspicion from a new series of studies conducted by a Columbia University psychologist and published this week in the journal Science. One experiment showed people are more likely to remember data they’re typing into a computer if they think it will be erased from the computer’s memory, and more likely to forget it if they think the information will be saved. (Being told to remember the information made no difference in whether people remembered it, suggesting there’s no conscious “deciding” about whether to remember something.) Another experiment found that when presented with information we think will be easily accessible in the future, we’re more likely to remember where to find it rather than the details of the information itself. Similar to the way we rely on friends, family and colleagues to remember things for us, the internet may be training us to unconsciously outsource some memory functions to its collective intelligence. The findings don’t show the internet is causing the brain to lose its ability to remember facts, just that we don’t use it the way we used to. Is that necessarily a bad thing, or could there be any benefits to these changes in our memory function?


Betsy Sparrow, professor of psychology at Columbia University and lead author on the study “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” published this week in the journal Science