Measuring The Google Effect on People's Memory - Can You Google Where You Left Your Car Keys?

Over the recent Independence Day weekend the family and I were driving down a coastal Maine road enjoying a delightful conversation when the inevitable happened - no one could remember the name of the actress who played the lead in Dr. Zhivago. "I'll google it!" offered my daughter, taking out her brand new iPhone 4. "No!" I shouted, "Let's do this the old-fashioned way and try to remember her name."

Too late! The mobile Internet had already provided the answer in the back seat of the car as it careened headlong down east toward the Atlantic Ocean. "Julie Christie!" came the answer triumphantly. "Sheeesh," I found myself wondering aloud, "Who in the world has room in their memory for Julie Christie?"

Well, it turns out that I was onto something. Who DOES have room for Julie Christie, or for that matter the name of that kid who played Pugsly on The Addams Family, or reciting the names of all the kids on The Brady Bunch, in chronological order? We have enough stuff to remember already, important stuff, like numbers. Have you reached the saturation point yet in your brain's RAM regarding PINs? How many members of your immediate family's birthdays can you remember? Nephews and nieces included. Or is there someone else in your life that you rely on to store that critical data?

Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor at Columbia University is setting out to prove that all of this googling, binging, dogpiling and yahooing around the internet is impacting how we remember things. In a situation not unlike my recent family car ride, Sparrow and her husband were unable to identify an actress in an old movie, Gaslight. Were it not for the Internet, heaven forbid, the couple might have had to wait for the closing credits to find out whether it was Diana Wynard or Ingrid Bergman. A psychology grad student at Harvard at the time, this led Betsy to ponder the modern-day equivalent of the search for the meaning of life: "How did we used to remember things like this before the Internet?"

The abstract for Sparrow's report, published on-line this week at Science Magazine titled, "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips" is this:

 The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can "Google" the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that 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 Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Sparrow says that the incident reminded her of "transactive memory," a concept developed by her own Ph.D. advisor some thirty years ago in which a husband and wife might grow to rely on each other to store specific categories of information. For example, a husband might be good at phone numbers, while his wife remembers dates and times. After a while, the husband's brain gets into the pattern of no longer bothering to store dates and times (birthdays, anniversaries, dinner reservations and the like), while his wife forgets what number to dial to reach 9-1-1. An oversimplification, perhaps, but more or less what Sparrow has set out to discover.

Sparrow devised a host of tests designed to record people in the process of determining which information they should store themselves in their own memory banks, and which they might be able to access elsewhere at a later date, most likely on the Internet. Sparrow says, "I didn't want them to actually have access to the information but just to think that they would."

From the Science Magazine report:

For the first set of experiments, which involved 106 Harvard undergraduates working on desktop computers, Sparrow tested whether people thought of the Internet as soon as they were posed true-false questions such as, “An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.” She employed a psychological method called a Stroop task. After the trivia questions were posed, various colored words would appear on the screen. When those words matched topics that people were already thinking about, they tended to react more slowly when asked to name the words' colors. And indeed, when the colored words were Internet-related, such as Google or Yahoo, the students answered more slowly, indicating that they were already considering going online for answers.

Staging a sort of trivia contest with her subjects, Sparrow fooled them into believing they would be able to access key information later if they entered it into the computer. By doing so, she set them up to forget the answers they had written. Those in the control group who were told that their answers would be erased intentionally, actually committed more of the information to memory.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah... control S.... save often...

Science Magazine reports, "Those who were told that the computer would erase their notes had by far the best memory of the statements, as if their brains had made an emergency backup. Those who were expecting to retrieve the information later performed more poorly."

This is a fascinating and vital area of study. As more and more of our lives are spent working, recreating and even living on-line, hopefully we will develop exercises that prevent us from totally losing our cognitive senses. It might serve us well if we  could learn to back away from the computer, go outside to pick blueberries, read a book, or have an engrossing conversation with a loved one every so often.

Or at least watch an old movie all the way through without googling to find out the name of the horse that Harpo Marx rides to victory in A Day at the Races.