Ubiquitous availability of the Internet may be causing a shift in how much information we retain in our memories, researchers claim.
Because search engines such as Google and Bing are so readily at hand, through desktop computers and mobile phones, we feel less need to remember details that can be easily looked up, note researchers from Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard University.
"People worry about what our relationship to technology is doing to our cognition," said Betty Sparrow, a researcher at Columbia University who led the research. "They worry about looking up everything online and not remembering it all."
To probe the effects of this behavior, the researchers carried out a battery of tests with undergraduate students that closely observed what information they committed to memory and what information they didn't bother remembering, presuming that they could look it up on a computer should they need to refer to it later.
In one test, 28 participants were asked to read and retype items of memorable trivia, such as "Greenland is the world's largest island by area." Some of the participants were told the information that they typed in would be erased and others were told it would be saved on a computer. Then, they were quizzed on the material they retyped. Those that believed their material would be erased remembered more of the information than those who had assumed the material would be saved.
"Thus it appears that believing that one won't have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself," the paper stated. In other words, if someone knows that information may be found on the Internet, he or she may be less likely to commit that information to memory.
Another experiment was conduct to determine if people prefer to memorize the locations of where they could find data in favor of remembering the data itself. Here, 32 participants were presented with a number of statements, along with the names of folders in which these bits of information would be saved. Then, they were asked to recall as much of the information as possible and were then quizzed on which folder each piece of information was in.
Overall, participants were better able to recall which folder each bit of information was stored in than the information itself.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.