Like the television and telephone before it, the Internet instigates feelings of love and loathing.
We are addicted to it, but resent our dependence on it. We can't wait to see what innovations it will bring us, but wonder what it has caused us to lose. And like the phone and TV, it leads us to wring our hands over one crucial question: Is it making us dumber?
A new study shows that the Internet is affecting our memories, though whether or not you think it's making us dumber depends on your definition of dumber.
In a series of experiments, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her co-researchers demonstrated that people are more likely to remember things when they think they won't be able to find them using a computer and vice versa.
“Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write in Science (abstract only without subscription). (Hm, whether or not the Internet is making us dumber, it does seem to be making us lazier.)
The researchers also showed that people are even better at remembering where facts are stored than they are at remembering the fact itself.
Dr. Sparrow and her collaborators, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, conducted four experiments.
Looking to the computer for answers
In the first experiment, Dr. Sparrow showed that when confronted with difficult questions, people already start thinking about looking for the answers online.
The researchers asked 46 Harvard undergraduates easy and difficult questions, such as "Does 2 plus 3 equal 5?" or "Does Denmark contain more square miles than Costa Rica?" Afterward, they were shown general words, such as "table" or "telephone," as well as computer-related words, such as "modem" or "Google," in red or blue. They were then asked to identify the color of each word.
Subjects who had just tried to answer difficult questions were slower to identify the colors of the computer-related words than those who hadn't. Sparrow says this is because they were thinking about using the computer to find the answers. In fact, participants took longest to respond to the color question when the word "Google" came up.
How computers affect what we decide what to remember
Next, Sparrow and her colleagues aimed to determine whether having access to a computer affects what we remember.
In two experiments, almost 90 Harvard and Columbia undergraduates typed information into a computer. Half were told the information would be saved and the other half were told it would be erased. When asked to recall the statements, the students who thought the computer would erase their work remembered the statements better. (Okay, maybe the Internet isn't making us that lazy.)
Remembering where better than what
The last experiment posed trivia questions to 34 Columbia undergrads, who were told that all the information would be saved in six different files with generic names such as "FACTS," "DATA," "NAMES" or "INFO." When asked to recall the facts and their locations, they remembered the locations better.
Technology becomes external memory
These experiments show that people are using technology as external memory storage. As the Los Angeles Times says, quoting the researchers:
[W]e've come to use our laptops, tablets and smartphones as a 'form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves. ... We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found.'
Sparrow believes that this new trend might make us smarter, because we don't waste energy trying to memorize facts, thereby reserving brainpower for understanding the big picture.
As she told U.S. News and World Report, "If you take away the mindset of memorization, it might be that people get more information out of what they are reading, and they might better remember the concept," she explained.
Expanding external memory from people to computers
Though we may think it's very new to turn to our iPhone to find out information we can't remember, it turns out that people have long relied on outside sources for memory.
Twenty-five years ago, co-author Wegner and his now wife, Toni, were looking for the sponge they used to wash the car. He thought she knew where it was since she remembered everything about their washing and cleaning chores. She thought he knew since he was in charge of all the facts about their garage and car.
Their inability to find the sponge led to a better finding: the concept of transactive memory, in which people depend on others to remember things in areas about which the other person is more knowledgeable. For instance, you might always turn to your history buff dad when you have a question about the Civil War, while he always turns to you, his tech-savvy daughter, when he has a computer question.
As we rely less on dad and more on Google and Wikipedia, let's hope that if this new trend isn't making us smarter, it is as least making us better at figuring out whether or not to believe what we read on the Internet.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the words in the first study were presented in red or blue.