Sunday, July 24, 2011

Relying on Search Engines Instead of Memory

How do internet search engines affect how humans learn and retain information? In an interesting series of experiments, psychologist Betsy Sparrow and colleagues report that the immediate and reliable access to a wide range of information may be leading us to use the internet as a vast personal memory bank.

In one experiment, human subjects were given trivia statements and asked to type them on a computer. Half of the students were told in advance that the information would be saved so they could view it later; the other half were told that it would be erased. Those who were told it would be erased had the best recall of the statements later, indicating that their brains were more likely to have made an “emergency backup”, knowing that the information would not be easily accessible again. Those promised computer access to the information later were more likely to forget the information.

In another experiment, half of the students given trivia information were told it would be stored in one of five folders; the other half were told it would be erased. When asked later, the students who were told the information would be in a folder could easily recall which folder it was in; more easily than they could recall the trivia information itself. And as before, they had poorer recall of the trivia information than the students who were told it would be erased.

With easy access to the internet, it seems that we tend to place more importance on where to find information than on memorization. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing…

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