Internet use is replacing human memory

Internet use is replacing human memory
Credit: Minh Dat Tran

People don't bother using their memory to remember things anymore. They instead rely on the internet.


There’s more evidence that the internet is changing the way we think. Problem solving and recall are among the things people use the internet for. However, the more one does it, the more reliant on the internet one gets, researchers say.

And so much so that people who use Google and other internet tools a lot don’t even try to remember things, a study just published in Memory says.

“Memory is changing,” says Dr. Benjamin Storm, the lead author in academic publisher Routledge’s press release. “Our research shows that as we use the internet to support and extend our memory, we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother.”

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Smartphones and other networked devices proliferating in everyday lives are to blame, say the researchers, who are from the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

The main problem is that the use of the internet to obtain information “inflates” use in the future. People get comfortable with the convenience and superiority, and they start relying on it “to access other information,” the research article says. That spirals.

The paper calls it “cognitive offloading” and reckons it can spur from internet tools successfully answering of difficult questions. The user likes the fact that the services were right when answering hard questions, so the person starts to use the internet for easy, trivial questions, too.

Using the internet as an information source influences the extent to which a person uses the internet as an information source in the future,” the researchers say their experiments prove.

Memory vs. Google

The experiments referred involved two groups of people. The first used only their memory, and the second used Google to answer difficult trivia questions. After a while the groups were offered a choice of using their own memory or Google to answer easier questions.

“Participants who previously used the internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory," the release says.

They also spent “less time consulting their own memory” before going to the internet. Many of those who reverted to the memory method, from Google, for the second set of easier questions “failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.” The researchers suggest that the respondents found the whole idea of tiresome thought to be a palaver—in other words, they didn’t bother.

This is not the first research in the area. Late last year, I wrote about a study that found many people were simply unwilling “to volunteer answers to questions" when the internet was available to them.

In that case, the scientists believed the respondents felt they knew less when the internet was around rather than, as the Memory article suggests, they couldn’t be bothered to answer from memory.

The earlier study found that “the people who had access to the web were about 5 percent more likely to say that they did not know the answer to the question,” an article on the researchers’ website said then.

Regardless, there’s probably a combination of the two at play. The first study found that accuracy overall went up when the internet was used to answer questions. So, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. I didn’t actually remember that specific point; it was looking at the archive online that reminded me of it.

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