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.

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

  1. And I think there's something to be said about application of the knowledge rather than just doing a quick search over "Gee Wiz" information.

    For instance, if I do a Google search for a guide to building computers, and then use that guide to build a computer, I am much more likely to remember that information. If I goof up on one of the step, and then have to google information to fix it, and then I do fix it (or find out I need to rebuy something because I broke it), I am much more likely to remember that mistake and fix the next time around to avoid making it again too.

    It's not how we get knowledge that matters to our brains, it's what we do with the knowledge afterward. If it's not important knowledge (to us) or we aren't applying it to anything in particular, well of COURSE we're going to forget it! The only people who don't have this problem are people with particularly good memories to begin with. (A person I definitely AM NOT! I've had a memory like a sieve since I was a kid. :-/ )

  2. What's funny is when I was in high school cell phones were still just something business people used but even then we could see the future coming and we predicted that people would stop remembering phone numbers not because they couldn't but because they didn't need to.

    That's basically what the study is saying. It's not saying we are stupid or we have problems remembering things but rather that we know we don't have to.

    There are examples in other parts of life too. For instance I work in a casual office wearing jeans and a t-shirt as such I rarely if ever wear a tie. The one time I had to wear one I looked up instructions for how to knot it and I have those instructions stored away because I have no need to remember how to do it on a regular basis. A person who wears a suit every day has it memorized.

    Doesn't make them smarter than me just means they have a different set of skills they need to remember than I do.

  3. To be honest, a correlation of this nature cannot necessarily imply causation. When you look at the brain and how memory works, it doesn't retrieve information in the same way as a machine can. Think less like Google and more like a convoluted search engine that has the kind of redundancy that makes any database administrator freak out. For example, when we learn new words, we do not simply store the word in 1 spot of out minds. There's one part reserved for associating an image with the word, one part for associating a sound with the word and then another part for associating a string of characters with a word. This means we learn words and then store that same word in 3 places of our minds.

    This is important to know because, it also illustrates why the mind can sometimes forget things from time to time (no matter how good the memory is). Most importantly, your mood can actually have an impact on how much you remember. Ever have an instance where elderly people tell you about the, "Good ole days". You know, the days when people where more honest and nicer to people….despite being the era of segregation, the holocaust, before the FDA existed to make an ingredients list a requirement so that people with peanut allergies were not as inclined to…you know…die of allergies (among whatever else got put in there without consumer knowledge). Believe it or not, this happens to everyone and it's called the "Positivity Effect". Basically, the positivity effect describes how all the positive aspects of one case can be recalled with more vivid detail, while the negative aspects tend to be more faded.

    Now odds are there might be a moody person or two that can remember everything bad that has ever happened. Turns out the positivity effect doesn't work on people with depression (especially clinical depression). It's not necessarily an inverted perspective, so much as it is the brains way of exchanging vivid memories for more vague memories on the negative aspects of things.

    Now here's a bit of a twist. The way the mind stores things is convoluted enough, but add the addition to the way memory is variable based on emotions makes things trickier. Knowing that emotions can affect our perceptions of things, it then comes as no surprise that our brains make emotional links to certain events. If you create a password while your depressed, you aren't as likely to remember it while you're happy, but when you're back into a depressed mood again, it's not as hard to recall all of the sudden.

    • Keep this in mind as I lay on one last note. The human mind cannot comprehend numbers as well as images. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs charged $499 during the iPads initial release? (more than the price of a netbook) Ever wonder why he decided on $499 and not $400 even or $500 or something in between? (and by extension why nearly everything from the food we buy to cars that are sold) The answer is relatively simple, the price says $499 because everyone is bad at numbers on some level. It's the reason some of us wait for several months before a store marks 5% or 10% off an item before we buy it by charging it to a credit card (and thus end up paying more for the item in question) after the interest comes into play. It's also why some of us will still use payday loan centers and extend the payment plan over several months because of the shorter payments (and thus higher balance over long term which usually averages about 493% APR over time).

      In business they know we cannot attribute proper value to the commodity in question, so they know there's an expectation for them to set the price for us (known as "price anchoring"). That's why Best Buy will say that you will save an arbitrary percentage (usually 25% or some other simplified number) over "MSRP" and a small amount of searching will find that the "MSRP" is more of an imaginary number (not just speaking in terms of calculus either, it's LITERALLY imaginary).

      This same construct was used by Apple when their publication "leaked" that the iPad was going to be $1,000. Then when Jobs unveiled the device, $499 sounded like such a steal. They anchored the price expectation at $1,000 then released it at what appears to be 40% the initial value and we think we're getting a deal.

      This illustrates why we are not good with numbers at all because, our minds cannot grasp the concept of value (and by extension be bothered to read the rest of the number and attribute the appropriate value). If you where to picture a box will with 2,763 ping pong balls how big do you think the box should be? How much volume would the balls take up inside this box? In terms of evolution, we didn't use numbers like this because we were more focused on wrapping our minds around, "Biggest meat is best meat" so complex numbering schemes were not programmed into our minds.

      Going back to Apple (because I love picking on them), the $499/$500 perspective gives you a whole new perspective now. You know that there's no difference between those numbers, but your mind still thinks that there's a difference. No matter how much you tell yourself that there is no difference, you're brain still sees $400 because it attributes the value to the number on the far left and tends to ignore the numbers on the right. This is why shoppers who try to be precise will sometimes spend more than they think while those who just round up tend to either have a more accurate picture or spend less than they originally thought.

      This is an important construct because when you have to apply this to numbers that are between 7 and 10 digits (maybe more maybe less also depending on your country), your mind has no idea what to do with these numbers. It has no concise way of processing a string of numbers that cannot be attributed to an image or something recognizable (yet another reason Starcraft taught me more about advanced math than actual school). So it might store them for a time, but when other information comes around it may discard or ignore anything not deemed relevant. Thus the phone number you just got was just blanked out because you just saw something that was interesting; when asked to recall it, you would either have no idea or a vague impression because A) your mood has changed, B) your mind doesn't think it's important C) Both. So the implications of this study are still highly subjective when you take all of this information in as well as other various factors that I haven't even covered.

  4. One of Einstein’s colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up. “You don’t remember your own number?” the man asked, startled.” No,” Einstein answered. “Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”