Google, memory and the damp drawers Olympics

If pant-wetting were a sport, the recent study on how memory adjusts to the constant availability of online information would have launched the damp drawers Olympics.

‘Poor memory? Blame Google’ claimed The Guardian. ‘Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim’ said The Telegraph. ‘Google turning us into forgetful morons’ wibbled The Register.

If you want a good write-up of the study you couldn’t do better than checking out the post on Not Exactly Rocket Science which captures the dry undies fact that although the online availability of the information reduced memory for content, it improved memory for its location.

Conversely, when participants knew that the information was not available online, memory for content improved. In other words, the brain is adjusting memory to make information retrieval more efficient depending on the context.

Memory management in general is known as metamemory and the storage of pointers to other information sources (usually people) rather than the content itself, is known as transactive memory.

Think of working in a team where the knowledge is shared across members. Effectively, transactive memory is a form of social memory where each individual is adjusting how much they need to personally remember based on knowledge of other people’s expertise.

This new study, by a group of researchers led by the wonderfully named Betsy Sparrow, found that we treat online information in a similar way.

What this does not show is that information technology is somehow ‘damaging’ our memory, as the participants remembered the location of the information much better when they thought it would be digitally available.

It does, however, raise the interesting question of our relationship to technology and particularly its impact on performance in different contexts.

For example, people making life or death decisions may train using computers but may have to work without them. This transition usually takes place during the student years.

So how can we promote content memory for important information? Probably something old-fashioned like exams.

Link to excellent write-up of study on Not Exactly Rocket Science.

10 thoughts on “Google, memory and the damp drawers Olympics”

  1. I’m old enough to remember the olden times, before we had the interwebs… Back then, if you wanted to find something out, you had to ask another person, or even go to look in a library…..

    Now, we’re in a strange situation where bandwidth is so huge that we can download far more information than we can ever process. The real limits to our knowledge and productivity today are our attention capacity and processing speed, not bandwidth. I have wondered what skills people need to develop in order to deal with the world as it currently is.

    I think that one of the most important things is to be aware that we need to set up some kind of attention filter, by being mindful of what media and information we consume. I don’t just mean critical thinking skills to avoid believing everything we read in newspapers or online, I mean like some kind of cognitive version of a spam filter in our email. For example, do I really need to read Mindhacks today? Should I be processing something more PhD related? There are several references in my PhD which I’ve found here over the years (e.g. the Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience paper) so I’ve decided its a useful if slightly random source of brain and psychology literature. My facebook feed is more spam-like however.

    Another skill I could develop that would be massively useful to enhance my productivity would be speed reading. I have many friends who can read very much faster than they can speak, whereas I am stuck with an imaginary voice inside my head, processing words phonologically, (I think I remember more of the text than them though).

    When it comes to memory, I have noticed my ability to track down the source, by remembering where to look, so the studies conclusions agree with my personal experience. I’ve also found that other external memory aids (like Endnote) make me feel as though my references are more organised *inside* my brain as well, as having them in groups by topic, and being able to recall them without error using the software makes me feel as though I’m consolidating my knowledge each time I do it. If I had to rely purely on my own memory recall abilities, I’d likely confabulate and form some slightly false memories over time, as Loftus and others have shown (I can’t remember what she calls these false memories, but I can remember her name to put into Google). No doubt, if I read one of her memory papers again it will be slightly different to how I am remembering it now.

    I think external sources of memory are fantastic, seeing as we know quite how fallible and subject to change human memory really is.

  2. “So how can we promote content memory for important information? Probably something old-fashioned like exams.”

    Oh geez, that’s both depressing and validating at the same time. Great read, as always.

  3. I’ve seen a gazillion posts on this latest research, and yours is the best write up (although in fairness to Ed, I haven’t read his). 😉 You’re right that this brings up a bigger issue of how technology affects our brains, also I wonder how we would sort it all out if wi fi and cell phone radiation is causing physical changes to the brain as well.

  4. In fairness, Aristotle raised the same concerns about newfangled information technology… you know, writing.

    Which is not to say if the research is true or false, good for us or bad for us, only to say that I’d be very interested in research which actually compared recall for information stored on line to information stored on paper (or in human form). This research isn’t comparative.

  5. In all fairness, why remember something when you could easily look up the information? couldn’t that leave more virtual “room” for more important stuff?

  6. I understand the idea that it’s not necessary to memorize information when it’s always available, but my only concern is with the act of coming up with new ideas, by combining many old ones. Not old ideas readily accessible perhaps would lessen the likelihood of combination.

    Then again, it could be the other way around, more vague/less concrete memories of a topic make it much more flexible in the mind, less grounded in absolute memorized fact but more of a vague understanding which is more readily combined with other vague understandings simply because one isn’t stuck in a concrete well formed view.

    Someone give me a grant!

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