Search Engine “Memory Loss” in Fact a Sign of Smart Behavior

A newly published study has been interpreted by some as a sign that search engines are damaging people’s memory skills. In fact, it seems more of an indication that the brain makes a smart use of its resources.

The study carried out by researchers at Columbia, Wisconsin and Harvard Universities, and published in Science, involved a series of memory experiments.

In one, the participants were asked to type a list of trivia facts into a computer. Though none were told they would be tested on the facts later on, participants received one of two instructions: half were told the information would be saved on the computer, while half were told it would be erased.

The researchers then found that those who believed the facts would be kept on the computer were “significantly” less likely to be able to recall them from memory.

A second study involved learning a series of facts, along with which of five folders on a computer the fact was stored in. Later questioning showed the participants found it easier to remember the location than the fact itself.

Some of the press coverage has been excitable to say the least: witness “How Google is wreaking havoc on our memory skills” or “Google turning us into forgetful morons, warn boffins“.

To me, that doesn’t seem a fair interpretation of the findings. After all, human brains have always coped with the limitations of memory by storing “directions” to sources of information. Even before cellphones with contact storage, most people were much better at remembering where they kept a telephone directory or personal address book than the details of individual numbers. And in my pre-Web school days, I distinctly remember a teacher mentioning that it didn’t matter how “knowledgeable” you were: somebody who knew where the library was and what time it was open would usually know far more than you.

I may be biased though: as a journalist, one of my key skills is not so much what I know, but how efficiently I can find things out. But in my view, these experiments simply show that humans do a decent job of find the most efficient way to store knowledge, both in our brains and in other sources.