Is Google changing the way we think? At least one researcher thinks so: Columbia University researcher Betsy Sparrow says that search engines like Google are changing human thought patterns. For example, we’re remembering less on our own, but we know where to go and find it on the Internet.
The debate over whether the Internet is making us stupid has been around almost as long as the Internet itself. Depending on how you interpret Sparrow’s remarks, you could say that yes, the Internet is making us stupid–or, you could say that we’re just using Google and other search engines as an extension of our brains.
Experts call this “transactive memory.” Basically, you remember where to get the information–just not the information itself. The concept of transactive memory is nothing new: prior to the digital age, we used non-digital “experts”–friends or books. The search engine has just made that process a whole lot easier (and faster).
“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,” Sparrow explains. “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”
A series of four different experiments were carried out by Sparrow and her colleagues. Each tested how people remembered information if it was stored somewhere accessible (say, the Internet), and in each case people remembered things less if they thought the information was stored somewhere versus if they believed it was not.
In simple terms, if we can find a piece of information online, we’re less likely to remember the information itself. However, if the information isn’t easily accessible online (and we know this), we’re more likely to remember the information.
Could this phenomenon also be chalked up to a lazy brain? I’ll leave you decide that.
Sparrow implies that we’re not necessarily becoming less intelligent as a result of the Internet and search engines. Instead, we’re becoming more sophisticated in finding information. This might be a good thing–we could be freeing up brain power and memory for other tasks, which technically could make us even smarter.
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