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Article on / website/ July 14, 2011.




Last year, writers Nicholas Carr and Jamais Cascio made headlines with a debate in the Atlantic Monthly over whether Google made you stupid. While it was eventually determined that no, Google probably is not killing your brain cells, several psychology professors decided to conduct a more scientific experiment on the subject.

In examining peoples' Internet habits and how it affects their memory recall, the researchers found that while the Web is not exactly making you dumb, per se, people are less likely to work hard at remembering certain things if they know they can just look it up on the Internet. Meanwhile, when asked difficult questions, Web users are now more likely to think about how they can look it up online rather than try to figure it out using existing knowledge.

"The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it," Professors Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel Wegner wrote in their report. "The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves."

The researchers, from Columbia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Harvard, respectively, didn't get into whether increased Web use is destroying society. "The disadvantages of being 'wired' are still being debated," they wrote. "It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets."

They did say, however, acknowledge that humans are "becoming symbiotic" with their gadgets, "growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found."

The professors reached their conclusions via a series of experiments where participants were told to remember information, but some were told that the data would be erased while others were told that it would be saved and accessible later. Essentially, if people thought the data would be saved, they were less likely to work hard to commit it to memory. If they thought it would be erased forever, they made an effort to remember it.

"These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology," the report concluded. "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."


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