Quick: Which British king had six wives? And now, who won the 2012 World Series? Not a sports fan? Then try this one: Who was the runner up in the 2012 Republican presidential primary race?
There’s a good chance you remember the name Henry VIII from high school. I remember my teacher drilling us to remember the fate of his wives with “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” But the 2012 World Series winner (San Francisco Giants) or the runner up to Mitt Romney (Rick Santorum. It’s true)? I’ll bet you felt pretty compelled to Google the answer. Computers 1, your brain 0.
The digital age is changing human behavior in marked ways, and plenty of scientists think that applies to how our brains work, too. Why remember anything when all the world’s information is a few milliseconds away? It’s early in this line of research, but there have been some compelling studies showing that fact recall is going the way of the horse and buggy. Rather than remembering facts, people are instead remembering how and where to find them.
The phenomenon was dubbed the Google Effect by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, in a 2011 paper published by the journal Science. A related phenomenon – forgetting things you know a machine will remember for you – is sometimes called “digital amnesia.”
Sparrow conducted four studies that pointed to the same phenomenon: When people think they can look something up later, they don’t bother remembering it. In one study, subjects typed trivia statements into a computer and were told to save them in one of five folders. Subjects were better at remembering the folders than the actual facts inside them.
A related study published by Fairfield University researcher Linda Henkel in 2013 came to similar conclusions. Some subjects in that study were told to photograph artworks at a museum. Those who did were less likely to remember what they’d seen. She called this the “photo-taking-impairment effect.” Consider Henkel’s work the next time you pull out your camera while vacationing in a beautiful spot. (Editor’s note: In the interest of science, check out the somewhat-competing conclusion re: taking photos in this article, “Get Up and Go.”)
A survey published by technology firm Kaspesky Labs, while not peer reviewed – (Editor’s note: i.e. for discussion, but not for massive investment) – fills out the picture in some dramatic ways. Kaspersky’s survey around digital amnesia suggested a reason you might remember the name of a British king from high school but not a World Series winner from seven years ago – you learned the king’s name before the Internet Age. Kaspersky found that nearly two-thirds of adults remembered their phone number at age 10, but far fewer knew their children’s current phone numbers.
These aren’t the first studies that seem to hint that our tech is making brains our brains lazier. Science writer M.R. O’Connor actually believes our brains are physically at risk from over-reliance on GPS. Some studies have shown decreased brain activity in the hippocampus among people who use GPS instead of making mental maps while driving. This in turn could lead to physical shrinking of that part of the brain, O’Connor says. It also means you might have trouble finding your way home if your GPS gadget dies.
There are plenty of great things about the Google Effect. For starters, memories can be fallible. (Was it Henry VI or Henry VIII?). Computers are obviously better at storing and retrieving massive amounts of information than humans. When an electrician is repairing a skyscraper’s connection to the power grid, you probably wouldn’t want him or her to rely on memory. Life is generally more like an open book test than a quiz show. Knowing where to look things up is often the more powerful skill.
Sparrow warns people not to fall into the usual trap of thinking technology has created some never-before-seen effects. Offloading fact recall is not a new phenomenon. Groups and families have done this for years. Any spouse who’s constantly asked where the clean socks are, or a manager who asks an admin where the next meeting is, knows this. That phenomenon is called transactive memory, and Sparrow thinks technologies like Google are serving the same function.
“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” said Sparrow when announcing her study results. “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.”
Offloading memory tasks isn’t lazy or dumb; it’s often efficient. Australian anthropologist Genevieve Bell made this case in The Independent a few years ago.
“Being able to create a well-formed question is an act of intelligence, as you quickly work out what information you want to extract and identify the app to help achieve this. To me, this suggests a level of engagement with the world that’s not about dumbness,” she said. “This isn’t making consumers more dumb; instead, it’s helping them to think smarter.”
On the other hand, plenty of scholars lament the potential dimming of the part of our brains that manage fact recall. Annie Murphy Paul, science journalist and author of an upcoming book on brain development, notes that pausing to look things up isn’t always practical. Her favorite example – learning another language.
“The way I think of it is this: You could ‘speak’ a foreign language by looking up the translation of what you want to say, one word at a time. But you would in no sense be fluent in that language, and you’d probably get a whole bunch of things – syntax, shades of meaning – wrong,” she said. “The same is true for Googling one fact at a time as you construct an argument. It just doesn’t work – you need to have a whole lot of stuff in your heads in order to put the pieces together and construct a fluent account.”
When you sit down to write a memo, or heaven forbid, an essay, you might have a pile of notes nearby. But if you have to pause with each phrase to look things up, you’ll never finish, and your writing will be choppy. The more facts you can hold in your head, the smoother your writing will be. As a byproduct, you’ll also make connections and offer fresh insights that can only come from colliding facts. (Editor’s note: [Command:Alt:Insert self-deprecating quip about bots taking editors’ jobs here]).
The best way to navigate digital amnesia is to let computers do what they do best – perhaps you don’t need to remember 500 employees’ email addresses – but avoid the temptation to offload everything your brain used to remember.
It might be genuinely helpful to recall quarterly sales figures going back several years, because one day, you might encounter new information that acts as the last piece in a grand sales puzzle.
“We need to have lots of knowledge stored in our brains in order to think effectively,” Paul says. It’s advice worth remembering.