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See Inside January/February 2012

Internet Changes How We Remember

Knowing we can retrieve facts online later alters memory



Mike Kemp/Corbis

Four years ago Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow turned to her husband after looking up some movie trivia online and asked, “What did we do before the Internet?” Thus, Sparrow set out to investigate how Google, and all the information it proffers, has changed how people think. Four psychology experiments later Sparrow has her answer, which was published in Science this past August. “[The Web] is an external memory storage space, and we make it responsible for remembering things,” she says.

In one of Sparrow’s experiments she presented two groups of undergraduates with trivia statements. Individuals in one group, who were told they could retrieve the information later on their computer, had worse recall than subjects in the other group, who knew in advance they could not do so. Together with the rest of her results, this finding suggests that Internet users have learned to remember how to find a fact rather than the fact itself.

Does this mean the Web is dumbing us down? Certainly not, she says: “Memory is much greater than memorizing.” Our brain may simply be adapting to present circum­stances, Sparrow points out. “We’re in an Internet world.”

This article was originally published with the title "The Google Effect."

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