Neuroscientist: Stop Panicking, Google Isn't Melting Your Memory

Last Updated Jul 21, 2011 7:31 AM EDT

Last week when the results of a study on Google and memory from Columbia Professor Betsy Sparrow were released, the media went a little wild with headlines including "Poor memory? Blame Google," and even "Google turning us into forgetful morons." (Here on BNET Laurie Tarkan used the research as a launching pad to suggest ways to strengthen your memory.)

With the internet reshaping vast swathes of our lives and eating up a seemingly ever-larger portion of our waking hours, of course there's a degree of concern about what effect all that screen time is having on our brains. Just look at the success of Nicholas Carr if you want proof of our collective anxiety. But did the Sparrow study really show that Google is in some way harming our memories or was the reaction to the study a bit overblown?

According to one psychology blog at least, the media was typically overexcited about the results. Mind Hacks, written by the authors of the book of the same name, claims that rather than proving Google leads to a fall off in our ability to remember, the study shows that use of search engines just changes the type of memory we employ -- and that this is a perfectly healthy adaptation. The post explains:

Although the online availability of the information reduced memory for content, it improved memory for its location. Conversely, when participants knew that the information was not available online, memory for content improved. In other words, the brain is adjusting memory to make information retrieval more efficient depending on the context.

Memory management in general is known as metamemory and the storage of pointers to other information sources (usually people) rather than the content itself, is known as transactive memory. Think of working in a team where the knowledge is shared across members. Effectively, transactive memory is a form of social memory where each individual is adjusting how much they need to personally remember based on knowledge of other people's expertise.

This new study, by a group of researchers led by the wonderfully named Betsy Sparrow, found that we treat online information in a similar way. What this does not show is that information technology is somehow 'damaging' our memory, as the participants remembered the location of the information much better when they thought it would be digitally available.

The post goes on to ponder what interesting practical questions are raised by the research (such as how to transition from a study scenario where computer assistance for memory is available to a real-life scenario where it is not) and is well worth a read.

So what's the take away for business people? The good news is you can probably cross one more items off your list of modern anxieties, but the whole incident also serves as a reminder that the media has an interest in making new research sound exciting. After all, who wants to read about boring results? Before you start panicking about the latest findings it's worth checking around to see if other specialists reached the same conclusion as excitable reporters.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user indi.ca, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.