Minds like sieves

“As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.” -Emerson

There’s a fascinating – and, to me, disquieting – study on the internet’s effects on memory that’s just come out in Science.* It provides more evidence of how quickly and flexibly our minds adapt to the tools we use to think with, for better or for worse.

The study, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” was conducted by three psychologists: Betsy Sparrow, of Columbia University; Jenny Liu, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Daniel Wegner, of Harvard. They conducted a series of four experiments aimed at answering this question: Does our awareness of our ability to use Google to quickly find any fact or other bit of information influence the way our brains form memories? The answer, they discovered, is yes: “when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” The findings suggest, the researchers write, “that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology.”

In the first experiment, people were asked a series of trivia questions. They were then given a test in which they were shown different corporate brand names, some from search engines (eg, Google) and some from other familiar companies (eg, Nike), in different colors and asked to identify the color. In this kind of test, called a Stroop task, a greater delay in naming the color indicates a greater interest in, and cognitive focus on, the word itself. As the researchers explain: “People who have been disposed to think about a certain topic typically show slowed reaction times for naming the color of the word when the word itself is of interest and is more [cognitively] accessible, because the word captures attention and interferes with the fastest possible color naming.” The experiment revealed that after people are asked a question to which they don’t know the answer, they take significantly longer to identify the color of a search-related brand name than a non-search-related one. The upshot: “It seems that when we are faced with a gap in our knowledge, we are primed to turn to the computer to rectify the situation.” There was even a delay, though a lesser one, in identifying the color of an internet brand name when people had been asked questions that they did know the answer to, suggesting that “the computer may be primed when the concept of knowledge in general is activated.” In other words, we seem to have trained our brains to immediately think of using a computer when we’re called on to answer a question or otherwise provide some bit of knowledge.

In the second experiment, people read forty factual statements of the kind you’d tend to look up with a search engine (eg, “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and then typed the statements into a computer. Half the participants were told the computer would save what they typed, and half were told that what they typed would be erased. Afterwards, the participants were asked to write down as many of the statements as they could remember. The experiment revealed that people who believed the information would be stored in the computer had a weaker memory of the information than those who assumed that the information would not be available in the computer. The researchers conclude: “Participants apparently did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read. Since search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up.”

The third experiment was a variation on the second, which again showed that people were less likely to remember a fact if they believed they would be able to find it on a computer and more likely to remember it if they believed it would not be available on a computer. The experiment further revealed that when people were asked whether a fact had been saved or erased, they displayed a better recall for the act of saving than erasing. “Thus,” the researchers explain, “it appears that believing that one won’t have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself, whereas believing the information was saved externally enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed, at least in general.”

In the fourth experiment, people again read a series of factual statements and typed them into a computer. They were told that the statements would be stored in a specific folder with a generic name (eg, “facts” or “data”). They were then given ten minutes to write down as many statements as they could remember. Finally, they were asked to name the folder in which a particular statement was stored (eg, “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?”). It was discovered that people were better able to remember the folder names than the facts themselves. “These results seem remarkable on the surface, given the memorable nature of the statements and the unmemorable nature of the folder names,” the researchers write. The experiment provides “preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item.”

Human beings, of course, have always had external, or “transactive,” information stores to supplement their biological memory. These stores can reside in the brains of other people we know (if your friend John is an expert on sports, then you know you can use John’s knowledge of sports facts to supplement your own memory) or in storage or media technologies such as maps and books and microfilm. But we’ve never had an “external memory” so capacious, so available and so easily searched as the web. If, as this study suggests, the way we form (or fail to form) memories is deeply influenced by the mere existence of external information stores, then we may be entering an era in history in which we will store fewer and fewer memories inside our own brains.

If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?

The researchers seem fairly sanguine about the results of their study. “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools,” they conclude, “growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.” Although we don’t yet understand the possible “disadvantages of being constantly ‘wired,'” we have nevertheless “become dependent” on our gadgets. “We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.” But as memory shifts from the individual mind to the machine’s shared database, what happens to that unique “cohesion” that is the self?

8 thoughts on “Minds like sieves

  1. Martin Cohen

    To me, it’s the lazy principal: People only do the minimum needed to get done what they need to do.

    If the information needed is easier to get online than to remember, then it will not be remembered. If it is easier to remember where something is than what it is, that is what will be remembered.

  2. Jlmannisto

    Your point about the cohesion of memory is really important. I think it was Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy who (among others, I’m sure) discussed why Ph.D. candidates need to pass oral exams: they must prove that they have stored the relevant knowledge in their own brains through the fast-paced recall demands of a fluent conversation before they can be called experts.

    We need that kind of expertise in order to delve deep into complex problems. Not everyone needs to be a PhD or even a high-level analyst of any sort, but it’s going to be harder and harder for the people who do strive to do that kind of work if they’ve outsourced too much of the knowledge. I don’t know how much “too much” is, but I’m sure that there is a “too much.”

    In the Science Magazine podcast, Dr. Sparrow noted that memorizing facts is of limited use anyway; that what we need (and I’m paraphrasing) is to know how to analyze and synthesize those facts to make arguments and decisions. I agree with this completely. On the other hand, you need to have certain things stored in your own brain to make those arguments efficiently. (Maybe we don’t need to memorize trivia anymore, but trivia isn’t all we outsource to Google and Wikipedia.)

    I just graduated from an iSchool with a degree in library/info services, so knowing where to find information is a key part of what I claim as a professional skill. Obviously, we’d be in trouble if we couldn’t find information to supplement what’s stored in our own brains. But we’ll be in similar trouble if we have to spend too much time finding information that we haven’t already pondered and integrated into our own personal collection of knowledge. It’s a balance, and that balance is shifting. We should be cautious.

    –Jessie Mannisto

  3. Mike Mccubbins

    If you were to do the same study, say with books instead of the internet, I think you would find pretty much the same results. Storing data outside of ourselves is nothing new. Apply the “folder” experiment to the names of books themselves, or how about actual real live “folders”! The internet is just making that information more accessible to more people. If the invention of the printing press was such a boon, precisely because it gave us better access to facts and ideas, then why is the internet any different?

  4. Thefrailestthing

    Owen Barfiled wrote,

    “I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being. Thus, I may say, loosely, that I ‘hear a thrush singing’. But in strict truth all that I ever merely ‘hear’ — all that I ever hear simply by virtue of having ears — is sound. When I ‘hear a thrush singing’, I am hearing, not with my ears alone, but with all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will.”

    Following Barfield, we might also note the role of memory in informing and enriching our perception, which is to say our experience of life.

  5. Jlmannisto

    Mike, I’d say that in a sense, you’re right: in most respects it’s essentially the same as storing information in a book.

    But because it is so much easier now, we have less incentive to commit this information to our own memory. When we stored it books, we knew it would be a bit harder to retrieve, so we tried to “download” more of it to our brains and “save” it there.

    And when it’s stored locally, I expect we can consciously and subconsciously synthesize it with other free-floating facts. It’s in our minds that analysis and creativity happens, not in the books or on the Internet or wherever the info is stored.

    So while I agree with the basic point you’re making — i.e., that this is qualitatively like the printing press — I think the difference is one of quantity. We’re storing so much outside our own brains now that an important balance might be tipped.


    Too Much Information

  6. Simone De Beauvoir

    “As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?”

    Thank you for writing this. THe “cohesion” of self is one of the most important ontologic mysteries.

  7. Wesley Hogan

    Well, I agree that losing memory to Google is an unsettling concept. Recently I read something that frames it a little differently. It’s here http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2011/07/transactive-memory-for-couples/

    One thing that this prompts is the question of social contact: in the internet age, strong relationships that are face-to-face (whether couples, parent/child, friends, coworkers etc) are essential to keeping memory experience-based, rather than net-based.

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