Search engines ‘rewire our memory’

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Following a claim by researchers that Internet search engines have changed the way that memory works, I was contacted by The Telegraph in order to review the study making this claim and provide a point of view.

In response I highlighted the need for more longitudinal studies designed to measure changes in cognitive functioning as a consequence of specific shifts in behaviour over a sufficiently long period of time (in order to evidence causation instead of merely a correlation). I also referred to the concept known as ‘Transactive memory’ (Wegner, 1985) in which members of a group access a shared store of knowledge between each other (an interesting topic in the context of the internet and one worthy of further discussion).

Here is a brief except from the article,

A study from Columbia University suggests that the ability to find almost any information via a few keystrokes on Google could make us less likely to remember things. Researchers believe that we tend to forget information if we are confident that we can find it again. If we think that something will not be easy to find again then we make more effort to remember it.

However, Eleanor Barlow, a consultant specialising in cyberpsychology, said that it is difficult to prove that the way memory works has changed, because of the internet or anything else, because there are few studies to refer back to.

She said the study’s conclusion that we make less effort to remember information that we know we can retrieve seemed logical but was not necessarily caused by the internet. She said: “If you had done that test 10 or 20 years ago, you would probably have had the same result.”

She added: “Maybe people are more used to having to retrieve information now, but you would need to have a previous test to refer back to.”

Read the full Telegraph article here “Search engines ‘rewire our memory’.

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On 15th July 2011
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