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Google Effects On Human Memory

Posted by Michael Bloch in online world (Sunday July 17, 2011 )

Nearly 4 years ago, I mentioned my failing short term memory and questioned if my reliance on the Internet was part of the cause rather than perhaps a case of early onset Alzheimers. A recent study shows the former may be the case.

In my post “outsourcing memory“, I bemoaned the fact that I could remember my home phone number from 30 years ago, but not the one I have today. I remember all sorts of details from my pre-Internet years, but increasingly I find I’m turning to Google for more recently acquired information I should perhaps be able to remember.

A few people working in the industry commented to me they were experiencing the same thing, which was somewhat a relief. More recently, a study by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow confirms the phenomenon is real.

Dr. Sparrow’s research found that some of us have the tendency of forgetting what we are confident we can find on the Internet and being more likely to remember things we think are not available online.

Her study, detailed in a paper entitled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”, involved experiments that also determined people tend to remember where to find information when they can’t remember the information itself. For example, you may not know remember what “Googlenesia” means, but you’ll know how to find the information – via Google. Or perhaps you can’t remember what today’s temperature will be after having viewed the weather report online just hours ago, but you’ll remember the name of weather site you used to find it.

Psychologists call this transactive memory – memories external to us but ones we know when and how to gain access to.

While I’m usually in front of a computer, I still find it incredibly frustrating when I can’t remember something from perhaps even earlier on in the same day. I am certainly starting to understand how people suffering from early stage dementia feel when they forget things. It was getting to the point that I decided to start some memory training exercises to combat the problem, which I’m finding is of some help; so if “transactive memory” is getting you down, give memory exercises a whirl.


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