I have long joked with my friends that it is a very good thing that Google came along just as my memory capacities have begun decaying. Now Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues report that it's no joke. In their new study the researchers find that using search engines is affecting the way people remember information. The actual experiments involve just a few subjects, but the results ring true for me. As the New York Times reports:
The scientists, led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, wondered whether people were more likely to remember information that could be easily retrieved from a computer, just as students are more likely to recall facts they believe will be on a test.
Dr. Sparrow and her collaborators, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, staged four different memory experiments. In one, participants typed 40 bits of trivia — for example, "an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain" — into a computer. Half of the subjects believed the information would be saved in the computer; the other half believed the items they typed would be erased.
The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. "Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read," the authors write.
A second experiment was aimed at determining whether computer accessibility affects precisely what we remember. "If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example," the researchers wrote, "do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?"
In this case, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. The researchers were surprised to find that people seemed better able to recall the folder.
Now I love the Web as much as the next guy, but concerns about offloading memories into other media are at least as old as Socrates' complaint that writing would produce forgetfulness. With some irony, Plato wrote down in The Phaedrus dialogue Socrates' reply of the King of Egypt to the inventor of writing:
"…it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."
So much for Socrates. I look forward to the real solution to the problem of fading and fallible organic memory which is the future installation in our brains of a wireless chip connected to the digitized contents of the Web (including the Library of Congress). As an emergency backup, our memories could perhaps also be uploaded into some upgraded future equivalent of a flash drive.