Our Memories Are Cloudy

In graduate school I conducted a psychology study on sports recall that showed participants could remember every Super Bowl/World Series/Final Four team over the previous 10 years. What’s more, with a little work, some of them could remember the score, the most valuable player, or even the date the game took place. While I was amazed at the result, in the following years I discovered dozens of similar experiments.

Lately I’ve wondered whether the findings would still hold. I meet fewer and fewer people with a passion for trivia; we all seem to rely on search engines to recall seldom used facts.

A Science article titled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” makes the case that the Internet has become a primary form of transactive memory.  The research shows that we forget things we are confident we can find on the Internet but we are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. Furthermore, we are better at remembering where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself.

Lead author Betsy Sparrow explains:

Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things. Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.

More from Sparrow in this video:

As far as I can tell, this is the first research into the impact of search engines on human memory. Despite common wisdom that the Internet makes us lazier and perhaps dumber, the study suggests otherwise. I can unclutter my brain by memorizing only those things I have to remember. Everything else I can look up. This is efficiency, not laziness.

But don’t worry: I can still remember that the SF Giants won last year’s World Series.

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28 Responses to Our Memories Are Cloudy

  1. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) September 11, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    There’s always been somebody trying to say that easier access to knowledge is a bad thing. Plato, putting words in the mouth of Socrates in Phaedrus:

    “for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

    But I’m with Einstein:

    “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books.”

    • Jonathan September 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

      Timo, great quotes. I remember my high school physics teacher who taught me how to derive the formulas, rather than to memorize them. Learn how to learn.

  2. Chad Wiebesick September 11, 2011 at 4:04 am #

    Good post Jonathan. Albert Einstein couldn’t remember his phone number, but knew where to always find it – the phone book.

    • Jonathan September 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

      Thanks Chad. Two comments and two mentions of Einstein. I feel honored

  3. Norman Marks September 12, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    A teen walks into an electronics store and asks to see their calculators. The old man behind the counter shows him a range of models, explaining that 10% VAT would have to be added to the price shown. The kid points to one and asks the price. “Ten pounds plus VAT” he is told. “How much is that?” he asks. The old man is clearly irritated at the young man’s lack of basic math and asks whether he knows how to add 10%. The teen replies that he needs the calculator for his math class, so he can answer those tough questions.

    Why the story? Search engines are just one of the latest modern tools that are training us not to exercise our minds. Whether its to calculate a percentage, read a map, have a conversation that lasts more than 140 characters, or write legibly, technology is replacing what used to be basic human skills.

    Is this a good thing? Maybe it is, on balance. Instead of being limited to conversations in our sitting rooms, we can now have conversations with people anywhere in the world.

    At the same time, technology and research are helping us to learn that our minds actually ‘see’ millions of items that we don’t recognize in our conscious thoughts. These can be brought back to the surface with the help of experts.

    Maybe we need a search engine for our memories.

    Now where did I put that pen?

  4. heather deason September 12, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    I agree with the thoughts above. The internet is yet another tool to help us be more efficient – even with our memory.

    I recently read a review in the economist of a new book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You” by Pariser. The basic premise is that personalization is creating a “filter bubble, which is defined as a unique universe of information for each of us.” Through search personlization we are less likely to “encounter information online that challenges our existing views or sparks serendipitous connections. A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there is nothing to learn”.

    While I think Pariser’s thoughts are a bit extreme and not completely accurate, it creates an interesting thought…..if we are using the internet to be one of our main sources of memory, is it detrimental or helpful for personalization to influence our “memory”?

  5. Kate September 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Research has also found that families make us lazier/more efficient. We use our spouses/partners/families as external memory sources. My husband knows where the light bulbs are, I know where the extension cords are. One of the devastating effects of the death of a long term spouse is that loss of “memory” provided by the partner So humans have been using external information storage for a long time. The internet is more of the same. Lots and lots more….

  6. Robert E September 13, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    If memory is just a substitute for a database, it’s true that the internet is more efficient ‘memorizing’ facts and figures, though memory has more than just data.
    I sometimes think we don’t revere wisdom in people like we used to. Although Google can direct you to information, it doesn’t give you the insight or the emotions connected with personal experience. And though someone can be a multi-day winner on a game show like Jeopardy, it only makes them knowledgeable, not necessarily wise.
    It is important, these days, to have those people of wisdom. And just as in earlier times, you have to seek them out. There are always the talking heads, pundits, and spokespeople that have much to say, but little for us to actually learn or remember.

  7. jbeisty (@jbeisty) September 13, 2011 at 6:21 am #

    With all the references to Albert, I’ll add another. I recently read “Moonwalking with Einstein” which I would recommend. Its about a journalist who covers the US Memory Championships and becomes so interested he studies memory techniques for a year and then wins the contest himself. Turns out you don’t have to be hyper-smart to remember things. Even lots and lots and lots of things.

    I am interested in the implications of this post. I belive the internet and search technology will have a dramatic impact n how we choose to use our brains and memories. As a parent to two young kids I sometimes catch myself wanting to show them how to use a dictionary, a catalogue or a taxonomy in the context of a school project. Then I think: Is this just an anachronistic paradigm? Will these tools be useful to the next generation of knowledge workers? I believe “soft skills” will become even more important – that learning to work collaboratively across cultures in a project setting will be much more important than your personal knwoeldge base as “fact recall” becomes commoditized by ubiquitous easy to access search capabilities all around us. Will “Influence is Power” replace Bacon’s notion of “Knowledge is Power”? I think so – further, I think the notion of “working for a company” will seem quaint to the next generation. Those with the greatest influence will be drawn into project swarms to solve problems and get paid for it.

    I also sense a wistful quality to this post which I share. Gathering and sharing obscure facts is a way of absorbing and sharing culture. I hope it’s does not go away but maybe I’m just being old-fashioned?

    Last thought: Why do guys seem to have an inate propensity to recall lines for Month Python’s The holy Grail, Animal House and Caddyshack? And why is it ALWAYS funny?

  8. Geoff Schaadt (@gschaadt) September 14, 2011 at 4:56 am #

    I too used to call out those luddites who criticized the use of technology over use of the mind, but I recently learned a couple of things…

    The act of memorizing things — be it multiplication tables, historical dates, poems, musical notes, geometric proofs, whatever misery inducing act you can dredge up from your school days — is not just a form of penance imposed upon us to create conforming societal robots.

    It is actually critical to the appropriate development and interconnection of pathways within your brain. In addition, memorization is a critical component of automaticity — that ability that you have to process input without great effort. Think about how easily you are reading and internalizing this post and contrast that with other people you have known in your life who had difficulty reading — automaticity.

    And why is that important? The ability to think in creative, rational, and critical ways is enhanced by automaticity. It is difficult to create deep insight about any subject if you are burning your intellectual energies just collecting facts before engaging in any meaningful processing. And an effective, internal memory makes us far better at detecting subtle patterns in a noisy and complex background.

    Will dependence upon technology to calculate percentages in our head or recite Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech result in a less intelligent(?) critical(?) insightful(?) society?

    Time will tell.

    • Jonathan September 14, 2011 at 6:26 am #

      Geoff, provocative response. I know that I find it easier to write because I was forced to learn so many vocabulary words when I was younger. The cause and effect may not seem obvious but I believe that I think more richly because I have more words to express myself.

  9. Arun Krishnaswamy September 14, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    I have, oftentimes, in my hurry to create a favorite, pressed on favorites and not ‘memorized’ what the link is stored as. Many sites provide the link with the site name then the topic name. When I want to locate the link later on my favorites, I remember just the topic key words and then find the favorites search capability wanting in terms of searching by link key words. This is often a browser limitation that Google search has made a fine science of. Where I am getting to is, as even the search capabilities get more intuitive, will our need for use of our memory progressively get weaker and weaker. Or will we be ‘rescued’ in future by an in-brain search engine that we can invoke when lost? Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Or may be losing my train of thought? 😉

  10. riskczar September 16, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    I fear this is the case with telephone numbers as I no longer have to dial the 10-digits. I don’t really try to remember what time my son plays hockey or which arena to go to because it’s in my Calendar in my BlackBerry. I don’t feel the need to know everything anymore so long as I know where to find it.

  11. Terry Levine September 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    That’s particularly true with phone numbers. I was already bad at remembering them. Since the advent of cell phones, I’ve become worse. When my phone was stolen a few years ago, I could only remember one friend’s number and my parents’ number, which I’ve had imprinted on my brain since I was a child.

  12. Aiaz Kazi September 18, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    I saw this post come up last week and had an almost flippant response to it – why blame search engines – my first cell phone could store names and phone numbers – and that was the beginning of the end of memorized telephone numbers. Before that I could always remember the last 4-5 phone numbers my best friends and family had. Phone numbers and birthdays just stuck in my head…had nothing to do with search engines…as technology progresses we will use more of these aids to purge useless information – search engines may have accelerated this…but also give rise to a new challenge – the ability to assimilate the vast information to make decisions…and that got me thinking a little more…

    …I decided to wait until after a busy week to look at this again. Being a movie buff I was suddenly reminded of the scene from one of my favorites – Paper Chase where John Houseman (Kingsley) blasts one of his law students for talking about photographic memory – “A photographic memory is of absolutely no use to you Mr. Brooks without the ability to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears” Here’s the clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHV2n4o6J2I (the photographic memory scene is @ 6.36) Having grown up in an environment where a large emphasis was placed on memorizing the facts, it was eye opening to watch this movie then – and recognize that we need to go beyond just memorization.

    Now the first part of the movie clip is even more interesting – the Socratic method as it is called – it starts with answering a question, that leads to further question – an exploration if you will of the facts based on the line of questioning. Houseman exhorts his students that they will never find the whole absolute answer Why do I bring this up? First I don’t entirely agree – there can be absolute answers – it just depends on the question. Second, and perhaps more importantly – IMHO the memorization of information actually provides the critical speed to resolution or a continuous set of answers to a line of questions until we have reached an answer that satisfies the questioner – absolute or otherwise.

    I know I took this in a different direction from Jonathan’s original post…but I wasn’t ready to summarily dismiss the wisdom of older cultures that placed a premium on memorization – to enable us to get to our answers quicker.

  13. guest November 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    Being smart is not the same as being intelligent. Facts can be useless to me when I am thinking creatively…they tend to limit my creativity which has been awesome in my ability to deduct intelligently. Facts are not as useful as one may think, when it comes to making intelligent decisions in every day life and beyond.

  14. darin February 1, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Ive been doing this for years long before google arrived now i have become lazy and my memory faded i wouldnt recommend being fully dependent on a friend to remember things but they can help out alot. I think the brain needs challenge to function at its optimal capacity ………

  15. darin February 1, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    hehe photographic memory is like having a gaint calculator with a powerful software program controlling it for a brain, STILL it as its LIMITS! it only imagination makes things interesting.

    • darin February 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

      thats why you will often see proffessors gathered around child prodigies hoping to learn something new!!!


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