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Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Study Reports Internet Search Engines Are Affecting Our Memory

Recent Study Using Harvard Undergraduates Shows Internet Search Engines Are Changing The Way Our Brains Remember Information by Jack Swint

“Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” Psychologist Betsy Sparrow Columbia University.

Recent experiments performed at Columbia University by psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues produced evidence that people are more likely to remember things they do not think they can find using a computer and vice versa.

In addition, the studies found that people are better at remembering where to look for information on the Internet than they are remembering the information itself. “Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” Sparrow said in a news release issued with the research published in the journal Science.

“Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”

According to John Bohannon, who reported on the study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, (AAAS) Sparrow devised a series of offline experiments to catch people in the act of relying on future access to information through a Google search instead of memorizing the information themselves. Sparrow said she didn't want them to actually have access to the information but just think that they would.

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.

In another test, Sparrow played a trick on her subjects. She presented 40 different trivia statements to the students and had them type the factoids on the computer. She told half of the group in advance that the computer would save what they had written so they could see it later; she told the other half that the computer would erase it. Then all of the students were challenged to write down the statements from memory.

Those who had been 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.

In a further set of experiments with 62 Columbia students, Sparrow tested whether that backup memorization comes at a cost. She again posed trivia questions but allowed the students to type notes. Some were told after each note that it would be saved in one of six computer folders with labels such as “Facts” or “Items,” while others were told it would be erased. Then she showed the students a list of the statements, with several of them modified, and asked them to identify if any had been altered. In a different version of the experiment, subjects were asked to remember where the information had been saved on the computer.

In both cases, the students who had been told that their notes would be erased again had the most accurate memory of the information. But the most strikingly accurate recall was for the location of information on the computer. For example, when posed the question, “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in,” students easily answered correctly. In short, Sparrow says, they were better at remembering where information was stored than the information itself.

Bohannon goes on in his article to report how psychologist Roddy Roediger at Washington University agrees that “the study is convincing, and there is no doubt that our strategies are shifting in learning, Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can offload some of our memory demands onto machines.”

But Roediger said this trend started long before the Internet. “When I was a student, many years ago, we consulted books and encyclopedias to write papers. Now students can do it at home on computers. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so.”

End Of Story

Jack Swint - Publisher
WV News 2011
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EMail: WestVirginiaNews@gmail.com

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