The extended mind – how Google affects our memories

By Ed Yong | July 14, 2011 2:00 pm

Information has never been easier to find or record. Within seconds, the Internet lets us find answers to questions that would have remained elusive just a few decades ago. We don’t even have to remember the answers – we can just look them up again.

Now, three psychologists have shown how our memories might react to this omnipresent store of information. They have found that when American students expect to have access to information in the future, they remember that information less well. But there’s a positive flipside: they’re also better at remembering where to find the information again.

The study lends some solid experimental weight to a game of speculative ping-pong that has bounced along for years. In 2008, Nicholas Carr asked if Google was making us stupid in a provocative Atlantic article that raised the prospect of weakening memories, among other potential ills. In his later book, The Shallows, Carr wrote, “The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”

Critics pointed out that Carr had little evidence for his arguments. Others suggested different ways in which the Internet could affect our memories. Writing in Salon, Evan Ratliff cited the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, who noted that people often rely on a shared form of memory. For example, one partner in a married couple might be better at remembering birthdays, while the other might specialise in bank details. Together, they have a “transactive memory”, a collective store of information that each can draw upon.

Ratliff wrote, “Perhaps the Web, then, is like a spouse who is around all the time, with a particular knack for factual memory of all varieties… There have to be doctoral students out there right now, working on clever studies about what having Google in your pocket does to your retentive abilities.” He was partly right. No students were involved, but Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University was on the case, together with Jenny Liu from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel Wegner himself.

First, Sparrow showed that when US students are faced with hard questions, they naturally think about computers. These machines are instinctively connected to the concept of missing knowledge. Sparrow recruited 46 students and asked them a series of trivia questions. Afterwards, they saw a list of words written in different colours and had to name the colours in question. People take longer to do this if the word captures their attention, because they find it more difficult to ignore its meaning and focus on its colour.

Sparrow found that after seeing questions they couldn’t answer, the volunteers’ reaction times were indeed slower if they saw computer-related words (‘Google’, ‘browser’, ‘internet’) than unrelated ones (‘telephone’, ‘paper’, ‘pencil’). She writes, “It seems that when we are faced with a gap in our knowledge, we are primed to turn to the computer to rectify the situation.”

Next, Sparrow asked 60 students to read 40 trivia statements (such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and type them into a computer. Later, they had to write down as many of the statements as they could.

She found that the volunteers remembered fewer facts if they were told that the computer would save their work, than if they thought their words would be erased. If they knew they could look up the statements later, they apparently didn’t make the effort to remember them. “Since search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up,” says Sparrow.

This doesn’t mean that accessible information weakens memories.

Sparrow repeated the trivia experiment with 28 students but this time, after typing in every statement, they were told that their entry had been saved, saved in a specific folder, or erased. Later, they saw 30 statements, half of which matched the earlier ones, and half of which had been subtly altered. When asked if the statements were exactly what they had read, the students were worst at spotting the changes if they thought their words had been saved somewhere. As before, having information on tap obviated the need to memorise it.

However, when asked if the statements were saved or erased, the students were better at identifying the ones that had been saved than the ones that had been erased. If they thought that information would be accessible later, they were worse at remembering the actual trivia, but better at remembering whether it would be accessible.

They even remembered where the statements were stored more accurately than the statements themselves. In a final experiment, Sparrow replayed the trivia game with 34 students, who expected all the statements to be saved into one of several generic folders, named ‘Facts’, ‘Items’, ‘Info’ and so on.

When they were asked to write down as many of the statements as possible, they only remembered a quarter of them. But when Sparrow prompted them with vague identifiers (such as, “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?”), they remembered the location of half of the statements. Sparrow writes, “This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item.”

Of course, this is merely an extreme version of what goes on in our usual social connections. In relationships and workplaces, no single person feels the need to know and remember everything because we can rely on others to fill in the gaps where necessary. We store information through our social connections as well as in our brains. The same thing happens with reference books. I may not remember all the facts and stories in my book shelf but I’ve got a good idea of where to find any particular titbit. The Internet is the same type of external memory, writ large.

Sparrow sums it up best: “[Our] results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. Just as we learn through transactive memory who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer-based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

And perhaps even this is changing. The act of finding information is becoming ever easier as searching becomes a central part of our software. Gmail, for example, is structured around searching rather than folders. Everything from folders to Flickr photos can be tagged to make them easier to find. Rather than remembering where we’ve saved a piece of information, we may end up remembering the sorts of keywords that will allow us to find a forgotten fact. As our technology changes, so do we.

Are we better or worse off for it? Sparrow’s work is hardly going to end a debate that has raged for millennia. Socrates himself feared that the advent of that most dastardly of technologies – the written word – would weaken our memories to our mental detriment. Similar concerns were raised at the advent of newspapers, mass education, the gramophone, and the printing press. Media technology scares are not new. Nor, as Sparrow argues, are they very productive.

“It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

Reference: Sparrow, Liu & Wegner. 2011. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science.

Image credit to XKCD


Comments (25)

  1. It seems to me that this study only serves to support Carr’s contention that our dependence on the web is weakening our memory and cognitive abilities. The study finds that we can remember where to look but can’t remember exactly what we were looking at. Wow, I can’t think of a more convincing example of “skimming upon the shallows.”

  2. amphiox

    Remembering where to look is a complex task every bit as deep as remembering the specific details themselves. It is in fact, as the article makes clear, as aspect of the deepest and most complicated aspect of human intelligence of all – social intelligence.

  3. I’m all for social intelligence, my friend, but I see little connection between social intelligence and critical thinking, close reading, deep thinking, etc. These are the skills Carr and many others fear are diminishing. Remembering where to find something seems almost like a “spatial” skill to me (and I believe it is an important skill), but dwelling in an idea is a completely different matter.

  4. Peter Ellis

    Greg: I would say the precise opposite. Far more important than memorising individual facts is learning how to find out facts: i.e. learning how to learn. If I learn how to cook spaghetti bolognese, I can… make spaghetti bolognese. If I learn where the recipe book is, I can make dozens of different meals. Our ability to access a vast repository of recorded, permanent information is one of the features separating us from chimpanzees. Internet searching is just one more extension of the process.

  5. kirk

    The segment of the population that ever, ever knew what a spark plug was, what a spark plug gap was, how to measure the gap, where to buy the feeler gauge tool IF they got this far, how to set the gap after they measured it, how to replace a sheared spark plug, how to go the machine shop that didn’t charge to much to remove the stub… You get the idea. You were NEVER ALL THAT SMART ANYWAY!!!!!!!! Just knowing that the Washington Monument is on the mall in Washington is something I never knew until I stood next to the thing. On the mall. Look here it is:,0,16821866559714672568

    and you are not in Washington fubarhead.

  6. @Greg Graham – You mention “critical thinking, close reading, deep thinking etc.” Important issues, but where is the data to support concern that these are diminishing? This study, at least, doesn’t speak to these issues. The information presented was trivia, which, by definition, is… well… trivial.

    @Kirk – Cracked me up…

    @Everyone – Wait, what were we even talking about again?

  7. Peter: Remembering where you found something is a far cry from learning how to learn. I’m all for learning how to learn. I teach research. We know that students are able to find things; problem is, they don’t know how to discern a good source from a bad one. THAT’s critical thinking.

    Ed: True, but the idea of students being able to remember where in the sea of information they can find something, but not really being able to remember the content seems to me to be a perfect picture of our social condition as Carr describers it: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

  8. Gil

    @3 but this study does not demonstrate any of those skills are lessened by not needing to remember facts, anymore than having an encyclopedia does.

    I’d be interested to see how the internet affects people’s ability to discern reliable from unreliable sources: recognizing spam and scams comes fairly naturally to me, and I am always astonished at the sorts of things the elderly fall for. Now, perhaps that is just due to failing brain performance with age, but it would be interesting to see how (if?) having to separate the wheat from the chaff when performing searches aides our cognitive abilities.

  9. gregorylent

    divorce has the same effect, one’s extended mind torn in half, many missing pieces ..

    the real lesson from this research is not what’s in the misleading title, google, etc .. it is that there is collective consciousness , that mind is not limited to brain .. and more

  10. HP

    Plato, on the invention of writing:

    “But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

    Phaedrus, c. 370 BCE

  11. @HP – great quote. But to be fair to Phaedrus, what we have largely forgotten over the intervening years is the tradition of oral storytelling. I would argue it’s been primarily replaced by the printed story. I don’t assign a value judgment to it.

    @Greg et. al.: discernment is a learned skill, and one that is specifically useful to the modern age of information omnipresence. The practical application of that discernment makes itself known over time, much in the same ways as office-cooler chat recites the previous days events from the talking-box. “Well, I saw…”; “But O’Reilly said..”; “But I read…” etc. One of the beauties of information omnipresence is that in skimming the waves, one can learn to seek and discern myriad viewpoints and put together a more cohesive picture of understanding on a given subject. Much of TV is characterized by dichotomous viewpoints, when the subject encompasses much more of continuum. Many blogs and news articles are guilty of this as well, but there are also a lot more information sources that, when combined, present the continuum in a fairer light. In these cases, remembering where you found something and discerning its relative value can be key.

    For my part, I had used the web only intermittently until the last several months (let’s say January 2011). Following that, I learned not only the convenience of information omnipresence, but its power. I have vastly improved my critical thinking skills precisely and primarily because of the accessibility of information. I would assert that I have also packed a whole lot more into my memory in that time. Which brings me to a few key questions that don’t really seem to be asked in these studies:

    * How is new knowledge affected – specific subjects, new skill sets, etc.? Are new ways of learning and understanding improved when supplementing textbook exercises with Internet searches?

    * In particular, what are the effects of multimedia – videos, podcasts, etc. – on learning and retention?

    * What is the effect on collective memorization? Collective identity? Collaborative projects?

    * Is there a correlation between performance/grades and usage of omnipresent information?

    * How do the results change when dealing with items of specific interest to the reader/user? What about items of discovered interest (i.e., the reader/user does not know until they discover something that it holds interest to them)?

    * What are the effects on memory when an item is ‘shared’ on a social media platform? Or when one engages in a series of debates and or running comment threads on said subject? What about crowdsourcing?

    IMO, this is a complex issue and a new knowledge paradigm that can’t be simplified in terms of “are we getting dumber” or “the Internet makes you smarter”. And I’m not even really touching on the cultural intelligence aspect, which is fascinating and continually evolving. I’m excited to see our continued evolution and adaptation with tech-knolow-gee!

  12. chris y

    This doesn’t say anything about our capacity to remember. It suggests we’re training ourselves to remember metadata rather than instantiated data. If we are good at this (i.e. understand what metadata is valuable to remember) and have access to the right tools it means we’ll be able to use much more information than in the past.

    Up to you whether you think that’s a good thing. I do.

  13. Aquadraco

    Why the internet is good – now I can Google information to find what I need to know quickly and easily. Before the internet, whenever I used a dictionary I’d get sidetracked; I’d know where to look, but forget what I was looking for.
    Why the internet is bad – when I first saw your sketch, I read “I replaced my sparkplugs and now my car is running Word.” For a couple of minutes that actually seemed to make sense…

  14. This very much describes me. It also occurs with cellphones. Instead of remembering names, addresses and telephone numbers we allow the cellphone to do all the work

    This might be analogous to evolutionary processes where un-used body parts eventually become vestigial. Remembering like un-needed body parts uses up resources which could be allocated to other stuff. If you are freed from using up limited mental resources remembering stuff you can do something else like say analyzing or creating

  15. Mike, you’re connecting dots that this study nor any study connects. To say that skimming the waves enables one to “learn to seek and discern myriad viewpoints and put together a more cohesive picture of understanding on a given subject” is a huge leap. This was your experience because – I feel confident in saying – you ALREADY HAD WELL DEVELOPED CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. Therefore you have great mental agility and discernment to aid you as you access the incredible wealth of information on the web. This is very different than a child who grows up with skimming the surface as his or her only method of engagement. Evidence indicates that child is handicapped in critical thinking.

  16. amphiox

    I’m all for social intelligence, my friend, but I see little connection between social intelligence and critical thinking, close reading, deep thinking, etc.

    I do not see any link whatsoever between critical thinking, close reading, deep thinking, or any other remotely related processes with the two kinds of learning investigated in this study. It’s a separate module of intelligence from either remembering information straight up or remembering where to find the information.

    And thus it does not follow at all that those abilities would be either harmed or helped by the advent of electronic information and communication.

    Also, this is not a new process. Compare the memory abilities of individuals in preliterate societies with those in societies with writing and books. This is only one small extension of a process that has its roots all the way back to the beginning of civilization itself (and perhaps even older than that).

  17. Evidence indicates that child is handicapped in critical thinking.

    [Citation needed]

  18. Ed: (there’s plenty more where that came from)

    Amphiox: I get your point, but I don’t think remembering details of information is completely divorced from analysis, interpretation, reflection, etc. Before you can grapple with an idea, you must have the details of the idea in your mental grasp.

  19. Eee

    @Greg: At the top of this thread you said, “I’m all for social intelligence, my friend, but I see little connection between social intelligence and critical thinking, close reading, deep thinking, etc.”

    One of my gripes with this is that you’re saying there’s no correlation, but what you’re arguing, actually, is that there’s a negative correlation. I think you should acknowledge that these are two different arguments. I bet a lot of people here would be more willing to believe the former than the latter.

    To jump to the later part of the thread, you say, “…I don’t think remembering details of information is completely divorced from analysis, interpretation, reflection, etc. Before you can grapple with an idea, you must have the details of the idea in your mental grasp.”

    I don’t disagree with this, but in order to make your main argument stick, you still have to prove to me that there is a real value difference between remembering something “in your head” versus using an outside source to remember it for you. To me, there is little difference other than a speed advantage with using your head, and a breadth advantage with using outside sources.

    The point I’d like to make is that there is a difference between mental processing/cogitating (what we might refer to as “analysis” or “reflection”) and strict memory. And in turn, memory itself can be broken down into both basic informational memory and procedural memory. I’d offer that what you characterize as truly “grasping” a subject can be classified as procedural memory, and that’s a separate mental module from reflection or cogitation. Developing procedural memory may require some amount of reflection, but more importantly I think it requires practice, which you could define as “applied reflection”.

    The speed of that practice–the speed at which you develop procedural memory–depends on the person, obviously. And I don’t think the process of offloading the storage of information to outside media (which has been going on for millenia and is arguably human nature) is detrimental to how fast you can process or analyze. Not in and of itself.

    My last point (bear with me) is this: I do think that you’re on to something, but you’re blaming the wrong thing. I believe that people are losing some of their analytical, deep-thinking power, but it has nothing to do with social/shared intelligence or the offloading of memory capacity. I think our ability to think deeply is being eroded by certain aspects of a quick-fix, info-overload culture that in some ways is a byproduct of the same media we use to so efficiently store the world’s knowledge (knowledge we wouldn’t be able to use otherwise). Empty hours of looking at the TV and not thinking are different than hours spent searching on PubMed, but they are born from the same technological framework.

    The connectivity required to build from spoken word to written word, then to books, then libraries and universities, and now the internet, is made possible by a technological system that simultaneously creates a generation of 11-year-olds that can’t spend one minute within themselves without being updated on the fleeting, unimportant thoughts of a dozen of their friends. I don’t know if that will hurt the next generation, or prepare them for the world they’re entering, but there’s your culprit. The internet in and of itself is not the culprit, it’s just the medium.

  20. Ipso

    Not to be asinine, but if they could, would different species of squirrels be having this debate too, about whether and whence to store one’s nuts? It seems intuitive to me that the ability to find a cache is a skill crucial to survival, from Sciurids to hunter gatherers and to mortgage bankers and evolutionary biologists.

  21. E. Manhattan

    In illiterate societies, people are able to remember much more detailed information at first hearing than we are. Where I will jot down a note when I’m being given simple or complex directions for how to do something or get somewhere, my illiterate ancestors would have to remember it – there was no other way to carry the information with them.

    Having facts readily accessible to us is changing what we remember, but it’s not eroding our ability to think clearly. Anyone who believes that has an inexplicably rosy idea of how clearly people thought in the past.

    Thinking clearly is dangerous to the established order – the history of pedagogy and politics is full of instances where teaching has been re-tooled to remove critical thinking at the behest of political or theological rulers. Or fundamentalist school boards, here in America. Clear thinking requires skepticism, and logic, and a firm grasp of how to evaluate evidence for reasonableness.

    There are many forces in our culture which fight against those things, but the ease of getting information on the internet isn’t one of those forces – in fact, it supports clear thinking by giving people the tools to verify or debunk what they are told – if they have learned how to think clearly.

  22. Eee

    I’d be skeptical that people in illiterate societies have better memories than those of us in high-tech societies. There are so many secondary factors that could play a role. They may be better adapted to remember certain types of information, like following a route through the woods after being told where to go. But people in modern societies also have more that they already have to remember before you even test them. It’s hard to test total memory capacity when you’re already starting from different levels.

  23. Pete

    I don’t know if this Einstein anecdote is true, but if it is, then I think it’s fitting:

    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?”
    In fact, Einstein claimed never to memorize anything which could be looked up in less than two minutes.

  24. Daniel J. Andrews

    One of my grade school teachers (early 70s) used to emphasize the importance of knowing how to look things up. This was well before the computer era and we learned how to use libraries, encyclopaedias, card catalogues and all sorts of reference materials. Perhaps her influence is why my personal library is mostly reference books (several hundred of them)? Hadn’t thought about that before….

  25. One factor that strikes me about this is the differentiation between knowledge and skill. Just knowing how to do something does not mean you can actually do it. No matter how much you know about swimming, there is only really one way to learn, and that is to get in the water.
    So availability of facts on the internet is great, and has become an essential part of our ability to survive in our modern working world, but we also need skills. Maybe you just need the fact or data or information, and that is enough. Maybe you need more to really get the informal learning available.


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