The ‘Google Effect’ studies are a group of research initiatives undertaken to find out the effect internet search engines have on our memory. The phenomenon was discussed for the first time in a research paper by Betsy Sparrow, who led the study at Columbia University in collaboration with Jenny Liu from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lindsley professor of psychology, Daniel Wegner. The study, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” elucidates some significant connections between the expansion of the internet and human memory.
The Internet’s growing influence over our lives and the mind-numbing speed at which information is being circulated on the web today has made it extremely easy for us to find the most inane details and facts online. However, when it comes the remembering those facts for the long term, it has been discovered that we are more likely to forget what we found out using a search engine. While the results of these studies have been groundbreaking in terms of exploring the extent of influence the web can have over our minds, they have also been challenged by researchers in the field of psychology, who believe that the evolution of human memory is a natural process, and that changes in brain function did not start with the google effect on memory; they have always been going on as we adapt to new advancements.
How is Google affecting our memories?
The Google Effect study was conducted in a series of experiments, using a combination of research techniques with the participants. In the first experiment, it was found that participants, when asked difficult questions, were likely to think of the words “Google” and “Yahoo” in response to those questions. The next two experiments aimed at testing memory – participants were asked to type out a series of easy to memorize statements and then one half was told that their work would be saved, while the other half was told their work would not be saved. It was found that the participants who were told that their work would not be saved were able to recall the statements better. The fourth experiment was an extension of memory testing as well, wherein the participants were asked to type out statements which they were told would be saved in named folders. They were then asked to recall the statements. Subsequently, they were given cues and asked to name the folder in which the statements were saved. It was found that participants were able to recall the folder names better than the statements.
What do these experiments tell us? As Wegner puts it, the internet is bringing about a change in our memory compartmentalization, or the way we categorize details in our head. This memory compartmentalization is possible because of something known as transactive memory source. “[It is] this whole network of memory where you don’t have to remember everything in the world yourself. You just have to remember who knows it.” [source] The internet is now becoming a part of this very network of memory, increasing our dependence on search engines. These findings in totality have been called the “Google Effect”.
What are the implications of these findings?
The implications of these findings are pretty much visible all around us. We use cellphone logs to remember phone numbers and appointments, GPS and Google Maps to remember directions, laptops to access the internet and the internet to access social networking and information. The way we connect is influenced by this dependence on the web in general. So where does Google come into the picture? As the study illustrates, with the help of technology, we don’t need to stretch our memories too far in order to remember something. When in doubt, we can simply Google the information. We no longer feel the need to use our memory systems to remember details, because we always find what we need on Google. While the study is an obvious example of how technology affects brain functions, the biggest implication of this study is perhaps the fact that although we are still using our memory systems to remember things, there has been a change in what those things are.
Is it a bad thing, relying on Google for information?
There is no conclusive proof that using Google for information is having a bad effect on our memories. The fact that human memory is evolving is widely acknowledged, but whether or not the Internet is damaging this evolution is debatable. Wegner agrees that the effects of this dependence on search engines for information on logical thinking are still unclear, and that people, especially students, who rely on Google completely for all their facts and information, may have trouble remembering those facts and applying them critically. But the overall effect of the phenomenon has been put forth as positive. The common belief that technology is hampering the way we function is being challenged here, in that reliance on computers and the internet for our knowledge and mental functioning is not something we must run away from. Technology is a very potent part of our lives, and Wegner has used the example of the initial ban on the use of calculators by students in classrooms to illustrate that point. Today, calculators are not only used in classrooms, they are also instruments we use to achieve new level of understanding. We may not be stretching our memory to remember every single detail, but we are using it nonetheless, to remember the information we need. “We still have to remember things. We’re just remembering a different range of things,” says Wegner.
The study in retrospect
Although the study has given some interesting insights into the way human memory is changing in the internet age, and has inspired further research into human interdependence with computers, the results probably shouldn’t surprise us; the evolution of human memory is not a new phenomenon. Search engines like Google are just another sensory shift, a new range of sources we are using to absorb information from our surroundings and apply it to reality. Google is replacing our rote memory as the prime source of information and memory, but this does not mean that rote memory is completely dead and we are becoming a more stupid race. There are, of course, a bunch of facts and details one cannot find on Google and we still use our rote memory systems to remember those details. What seems to be aiding this shift is not just the existence of Google, but its availability. The availability of the internet on not just computers but even smartphones and tablets, is also important to consider; perhaps it is not just the google effect on memory but the fact that the internet can now be brought with us wherever we go.