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Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips

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As Internet search engines have become increasingly integrated into the way people locate, use and define information, concerns have been voiced over the impact this digital “crutch” may have on the lucidity and richness of human thought. Meanwhile, techno-enthusiasts claim that the mind is enhanced by such technology. Up to the present, however, little research has been done on the actual effects of such tools on human cognition.

A 2011 study by researchers at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University published in the journal of Science, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” used four separate experiments in order to approximate the impact that access to Web search engines may have on cognitive functions of memory.

Results from the study’s experiments included:

  • Subjects who were primed with trivia questions they did not have answers to were quicker (by 120 milliseconds) to recognize computer-based words than non-computer-based words, indicating a desire to rapidly seek to fill knowledge gaps with computerized resources.
  • When subjects believed that a computer would save information for them, they were slightly (but not significantly) less likely to remember that information themselves.
  • Additionally, believing that information was saved externally did not enhance subjects’ memory for the specific information but rather enhanced their memory of the fact that the information could be accessed later and where to find it.
  • Overall, subjects seemed better able to remember which computer folder an item was ultimately stored in than the detailed identity of the item itself.

Although the study’s authors do not make sweeping claims about the long-lasting effects on human memory of search engines, they do recognize that cognitive functions are altered somewhat through increased interaction with computerized search tools. The researchers conclude, “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.”

Tags: science, technology, cognition

    Writer: | Last updated: July 22, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the now-famous Atlantic magazine article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

    1. How does this study contribute to or complicate the article’s arguments? What key changes would you make if you were editing or rewriting the article?

    Read the full Columbia, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard study "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.