Search Engines Change How Memory Works

A study of 46 college students found lower rates of recall on newly-learned facts when students thought those facts were saved on a computer for later recovery.

If you think a fact is conveniently available online, then, you may be less apt to learn it.

As ominous as that sounds, however, study co-author and Columbia University psychologist Elizabeth Sparrow said it’s just another form of so-called transactive memory, exhibited by people working in groups in which facts and expertise are distributed.

“It’s very similar to how we use people in our lives,” said Sparrow. “The internet is really just an interface with a lot of other people.”

In the study, published July 14 in Science, students typed trivia statements — “Bluebirds cannot see the color blue,” “Al Capone’s business card said he was a used furniture dealer,” and so on — into a computer.

Half were told that the statements would be erased, while the other half believed the statements were saved. When asked to recall those facts from memory, the “erased” group fared almost 40 percent better.

Sparrow said the findings should be seen as an early-stage investigation into the relationships between online tools and cognition, which despite the omnipresence of Google, smartphones and cloud computing have been little studied.

A direct comparison of transactive learning by individuals in groups and on computers has not been performed. It would be interesting to see how they stack up, said Sparrow.

It would also be interesting to further compare how transactive and internal memory function. They could affect other thought processes: For example, someone relying on internalized memory may review and synthesize other memories during recall.

One small but intriguing effect in the new study involved students who were less able to identify subtly manipulated facts, such as a changed name or date, when drawing on memories they thought were saved online.

“They’re still pretty good, though,” said Sparrow. “They went from 87 to 78 percent. It’s not like they don’t remember stuff at all.”

Sparrow is now studying how students perform on critical thinking tasks when relying on transactive online memory rather than facts in their heads.

“The internet and technology in general is a huge part of people’s lives. It makes no sense to me that we’re not studying it more,” she said.

According to Sparrow, her research was inspired by using online movie database IMDB to identify a young Angela Lansbury in the movie “Gaslight.”

Source: WIRED News


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