Google Is Ruining Your Memory

Last Updated Jul 15, 2011 9:52 AM EDT

If you can't remember details from the report you read on the web, a news story or what's on your schedule for the day, blame it on Google, not the flagging memory that many over 40 complain about. A recent study suggests that even if you may have a little deficit in your memory with age, the internet is speeding up the process. Not because it's damaging your memory, but because you're simply using the internet as a crutch. The information is at your fingertips, so you don't have to remember.

The study led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, looked at whether people were more likely to remember information that they know they would have access to on the computer than information that would be lost if they didn't remember it.
As the New York Times reported, the researchers did four experiments.

In one, participants typed 40 bits of trivia - for example, "an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain" - into a computer. Half of the subjects believed the information would be saved in the computer; the other half believed the items they typed would be erased.

The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. "Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read," the authors write.


In a second experiment, subjects were more likely to identify which file folder a trivia question was in than the answer to the question itself.

The results are not a big surprise, and the question is who cares? You should care because the when the brain isn't firing, the neural connections weaken. Use it or lose it. Lots of research shows that engaging the brain in new activities (and memorizing phone numbers has become a novel activity) creates new neural pathways in your brain. Plus not relying on your smartphone for your facts will certainly make you feel less forgetful now. You won't need to say things like, "I can't remember anything that's not on my calendar."

How to eliminate the Google crutch?

  • If you're lost without your smartphone or your Google calendar, take a moment to remember the appointments you write down, rather than typing them in mindlessly.
  • Commit to memory a few phone numbers you regularly call.
  • When you read an article or report on the web, pretend that it will disappear after you read it.
  • When you're trying to think of the name of an actress in a movie, actually think first, rather than pulling out your smart phone to look it up.
  • And think about things you're not good at remembering? Is it names of wines, baseball stats, how to do program something on your computer, your kids' schedule? Ask yourself if you're relying, not necessarily on the computer, but on someone else to remember that information--and next time, try remembering it yourself.
There may be one benefit to less memorization. Sparrow thinks that by not cluttering our minds with random facts, it leaves more room for big picture thinking. As she told U.S. News and World Report, "If you take away the mindset of memorization, it might be that people get more information out of what they are reading, and they might better remember the concept."
Do you rely on the internet, your calendar or your partner to remember things for you?
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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user MoneyBlogNewz.
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.