A Tale of Two Memories: Long-Term Memory and “Google Memory”
The theory of the Google effect proposes that the availability of information on the Internet is impairing our ability to remember information. Though there are very clear cognitive consequences, not all are negative.
By S. Garrity Guenther
I. THE GOOGLE EFFECT
One day, Betsy Sparrow, a cognitive psychologist at Columbia University, caught herself consulting Google to find the name of an actress in Gaslight, a black and white film that she’d seen countless times. In true form for an experimental psychologist, Sparrow took her experience into the lab. And so, four years and many experimental trials later, Sparrow published a paper exploring the “Google effect.”
Her experiments tested the hypothesis that Google’s effect on the human memory system is largely negative, in that it impairs our ability to perform on assessments and hampers memory retention. The experiments took place at offline computers but were designed to give the illusion that test materials would be available online for the participants to look over before the final assessment. Sparrow found that when participants knew that the pertinent information would be readily accessible online tended to interfere with actually remembering that information. The brain prioritizes certain information, and it won’t store that which it decides does not have long-term importance or that which it believes can be found somewhere else.
Previously, in our research: “Epigenetics Gives Darwin the Finger,” by Katie Bainbridge
However, these results don’t fully answer our question as to the extent, nature, and scope of the Google effect. They point out several effects that result from having great amounts of information literally at one’s fingertips and how this utility can impair performance. However, there are several important points about the human memory system that must be explored before we can make an informed decision on the Betsy Sparrow’s findings and their implications.
II. HUMAN MEMORY SYSTEMS
When we first encounter a person, event, or byte of information, our brain holds that tidbit in our short-term memory system. It has roughly 60 milliseconds to make a decision: do I need this or do I not? If the information is relevant to the future or if it is particularly noteworthy, it will move up the memory chain towards the many halls of the library that is our long-term memory system. On its way, that tidbit will stop at the working memory system: this is where we keep information that we require in order to complete a task. Depending on the particularities of the task and the information, it may pass on up and find a spot in our library’s card catalogue. [Also see sidenote 1]
For example, let’s say that it is my mother’s birthday tomorrow and I need to buy her a birthday present. I call her up and she tells me that she wants a pony; a pink pony and his name must be Ben. Okay, that’s a pretty relevant and specific piece of information. I think it’s important. Let’s send it on up to long-term memory; I’ll cue it for when I’m about to head over to the petting zoo. Later that day, when I get out of work, I grab that piece of information and import it into my working memory. (Okay, okay, where is the nearest petting zoo… ah! Found it.) I grab the address, look up directions and I’m on my way.
SideNote 1: This does not necessarily mean that all information that makes it through our sensory register and up the tree to our long-term systems is perfectly encoded in our ancient mausoleums. There is no such thing as a perfect memory, and quite often our memories are lost, tainted or faded in those harrowed halls. This is a point for another day. But, keep in mind that none of our memory systems are concrete and that memories are rarely reliable.
All of the information that I encountered in this fictive example originated in my short-term memory system, and was then either kept or not. Memories of my mother’s birth date and her request for a pink pony named Ben are prioritized and live in my long-term memory. The directions to the petting zoo moved from short-term to working memory but did not pass into long-term memory, as I don’t expect to return to that particular petting zoo. Let’s say that the website for the petting zoo had advertisements all over it. These are examples of information and images that were expelled from the short-term memory, so as to make room for information and images that were more relevant to the task at hand.
Given this, it seems that Sparrow’s Google effect can be expanded to say that information will not be consolidated into long-term memory if we expect that we will be able to access that information online. That makes total sense. However, this effect is not necessarily new. It’s actually just a form of transactive memory.
III. OUTSOURCING MEMORY
Another example of transactive memory at work is the reference section of a library. Let’s say that I’m in a US history class and I am writing a paper. I know that I can check the library when I have a question about a date or person or development in technology, and so I store that reference information in my transactive memory. Similarly, if my paper is about the 20th century war in Vietnam in which my grandfather fought, I don’t necessarily need to store that information because I know that I can refer to my grandfather. However, if I am writing my PhD thesis on the relevance of War of 1812 to the current political climate, most of the information that I encounter in my search will pass to my long-term memory system. The information itself isn’t stored, instead I store the information regarding where to go to find the information in question.
A simple example of transactive memory can be seen in elderly couple. Let’s say that the husband is charged with remembering birthdates, and the wife charged with remembering distant relatives. When the wife is asked about someone’s birth date, her transactive memory tells her to go ask her husband. Likewise, when the husband is trying to remember someone’s great-great-great grandfather, his transactive memory will tell him defer to his wife. In this case, the referred and referent are both human, and so the process has a huge social effect; it creates and strengthens bonds.
In the reference section of the library, I am not interacting with another human being, so the social effect disappears. In the place of the social bond is a relationship of dependency, in which I expect that the information in question will be found in a specific source, allowing me to answer my query. When we move into cyberspace, that dependency relationship imports itself as well. If I expect to find the information that I need on Wikipedia, then it doesn’t pass into my long-term memory. Honestly, my brain has more important things to do.
IV. GOOGLE MEMORY?
When my brain decides that references to certain images, facts, or observations should be stored in my transactive memory space, it creates that relationship of dependency that I spoke of earlier. But, what happens if that reference is lost or the source site is shut down? Suddenly, not only I am without the information, but I don’t have a direct way to find it. This can become even more dangerous if an individual becomes dependent upon the Internet for more and more things. As the XKCD comic below demonstrates, one might become so dependent that they cannot function without search engines.
A second negative cognitive consequence of the Google effect is that the vast and extensive amount of information available in cyberspace can prove to be distracting. I, myself, have a very hard time researching one subject without opening a million tabs along the way. It can be easy to lose track of the original query when one is presented with seemingly boundless expertise and opinions. You must sort through the results, identify biases in your search terms and the source author’s biases in order piece together a whole in order to adequately answer a question. When we are looking for a quick answer, we often don’t go through the process of evaluating our sources. The danger is that we may receive false, incorrect or biased information and mistake it for some form of ‘truth.’
IV. GOOGLE MEMORY!!
One of the greatest benefits of having information at ones fingertips is that sources, articles, and opinions from around the globe become available. There has been a veritable revolution in research. Instead of waiting for printed copies of psychology journals, I can read them the day that they are published. I can search for old articles. I can look up the different references and concepts that the articles cites in minutes, which gives me more cognitive time and space to formulate a cohesive argument in regards to an article or experimental question.
Another benefit has to do with the prioritization of memories. Some information just is not important for the future. For example, I really don’t need to know the exact directions to a restaurant in Costa Rica unless I plan on coming back, or even moving to Costa Rica. I don’t need the weather forecast for Thursday, September 6th, on Thursday, September 13th. My memory system is choosing to exercise its energy consolidating more important experiences.
A third benefit pertains to the most successful methods of remembering facts, theories, and concepts: generative memorization. This is a process of taking in whatever materials relevant to a task, processing them deeply and generating an explanation or opinion in one’s own words. That’s right, the “put it in your own words” technique that you were taught in eighth grade is spot-on. Rote memorization (reading and re-reading passages, dates, or phrases) is the crudest and least successful of the memorization techniques.
Generative memorization, however, is much more effective, because it requires you to regenerate the knowledge as a process of inquiry and not the product of a search engine. This form of memorization would not be possible if our brains had to use up incredible amounts of energy and cognitive faculties rote memorizing terms. This is the beauty of quick forms of online transactive memory, the brain spends less time storing rote information and more time generating conclusions, theories and opinions. This requires a higher level of processing that improves as the brain’s speed of functioning improves.
V. MEMORY AND INTELLIGENCE
Psychologists and theorists have always had difficulty narrowing down a definition of intelligence. What they say (and what anecdotally appears true) is that memory is intrinsic to intelligence. Intelligence contains a level of deeper processing, but memory is the foundation on top of which we generate a true understanding of, opinions upon, and discussions surrounding the thought object. Any damage to memory is also damage to intelligence and growth, both personal and intellectual. Memory is identity, and human beings have a hard time functioning without an idea of what makes each of us different from the rest of the population. Without a sense of identity, we see amnesiac patients’ ability to function in even the most basic tasks drop off.
We grow, learn, and exercise our intelligences according to our experiences in the world. With each new experience, we have more data from which to draw our conclusions. If the challenge to memory that the Google effect poses limits the scope of evidence and facts, then that is a veritable challenge to intelligence. Any one of us can go online and Google a solution, but does that mean that we actually know it? That we can actually interpret it and assimilate that information into our world view.
This is the risk of the Google effect, the digital age, and the proximity of unlimited memory systems online. The danger is that Google and other search engines will “outsource” not only our memories, but also our thought- if thought is taken to signify the intellectual processes of an individual that draw from memories and knowledge. If the quality of our thought is dependent upon our memory capacities, is Google making us stupid?
VI. GOOGLE MEMORY AS A COGNITIVE TOOL FOR RESPONSIBLE USE
If online memory, “Google memory,” is a newly evolved form of transactive memory, then no, Google is not making us stupid. See, we’ve been storing our memories elsewhere for ages. The only difference is that now it is available in our pockets and is more readily accessible. Technological advances such as the Internet and smartphones can have innovative and enabling effects, but these advances can just as likely have negative impacts. The responsibility lies not within the products of innovation but with the users and consumers. The Internet is a tool for active, responsible use. The moment that it becomes just another mode of passive consumption, it loses its power to advance and further human pursuits.
A grand theme of cognitive psychology is the fact that the brain, in order to perform at the high levels, takes shortcuts. We outsource data, draw from prior experiences, develop heuristics and schemata and construct illusions that rarely pass into our conscious experiences because, as I’ve said many times, we really have more important things to do. Our memory system, as far as we can tell, has an infinite storage capacity and when someone devotes the majority of their time and energy to explore the limits of memory, they will easily expand their capacity since that’s the task at hand. For most of us, though, that is not the task that we turn our attention to. The brain prioritizes information that is pertinent to what we are trying to do at the time.
Betsy Sparrow1, Jenny Liu, & Daniel M. Wegner (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745
Manuel London, Jeffrey T. Polzer, & Heather Omoregie (2005). Interpersonal Congruence, Transactive Memory, and Feedback Processes: An Integrative Model of Group Learning Human Resource Development Review DOI: 10.1177/1534484305275767
If you want to explore how the our subconscious brain tricks us into seeing things that may or may not be there, explore your blind spot with this interactive site. This is where the brain fills in information to complete a picture based on experiences that we have fully processed. Since we rarely pay attention to such details, we hardly notice it. Similarly, there is a field of cognitive research that suggests that our experiences are mostly based on past information. Simply, when we have a conversation with a loved one or friend, we tend to see and hear them as we have in past experiences. The brain fills in information about small details that aren’t noticeable because we aren’t really paying attention to them. We filter out these bits of raw and unimportant data.
The brain uses forms of transactive memory to achieve this same goal. Information is outsourced and the reference point is stored in our memory system because our brains have begun to focus on a task that requires a large amount of cognitive strength and energy. In the case of the Internet and search engines like Google, our brain recognizes that information can be accessed elsewhere and that we can focus more cognitive power on other tasks, like generating opinions and new, innovative ideas. This lighting-fast transactive memory can benefit us when we are using the Internet as a tool, and will hamper us when it is used as a distractor.
So, I say: with great power comes great responsibility, and on the off chance you don’t get the reference, no worries. Just Google it!
S. Garrity Guenther
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