Internet use affects our memory

Reading about the cognitive effects of internet use is always highly ironic for me, because I am invariably reading the story online. A new piece from the New York Times was no exception: it highlighted new research from a team of psychology professors at Columbia, who found that people are using the internet as their personal memory bank. Because information is so easy to access, we remember how to find it, not what the information actually is.

Participants in the study were “significantly more likely” to remember information if they thought they would not be able to retrieve it later. In another test, participants were asked to remember a piece of trivia as well as the computer folder it was stored in. Surprisingly, they were far more likely to remember the folder than the information itself.

This, according to the NYT, is due to a phenomenon called “transactive memory” – where we rely on friends and family as well as reference material to store information for us, so we don’t have to remember it. The internet, with its endless reservoir of information, seems to be drastically changing the way we store and process memories.

The researchers explained it well in the study’s abstract: “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.”

My question: is this a bad thing? What this study seems to prove is that we are adapting to the internet’s new resources, and that the way we think is affected. While that may sound disturbing, it’s also important to remember that the internet is extremely new, and that this adaptation is even more recent. Surely, this change in the way we think is not irrevocable – and if, as it seems poised to do, our daily interaction with technology continues to expand, perhaps we will just begin to remember other things, rather than the trivia that used to clutter our heads.

As Betsy Sparrow, the leader of the research team, explained, “We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.”

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Internet use affects our memory