There’s more to memory than the brain: Psychologists run clever experiments, make trivial claims, take gullible internet by storm

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The online media are drawn to any “scientific” claims about the internet’s influence on our nature as humans like flies to a pile of excrement. Sadly, in this metaphor, only the flies are figurative. The latest heap of manure to instigate an annoying buzzing cloud of commentary from Wired to the BBC, is an article by Sparrow et al. claiming to show that because there are search engines, we don’t have to remember as much as before. Most notably, if we know that some information can be easily retrieved, we remember where it can be obtained instead of what it is. As Wired reports:

“A study of 46 college students found lower rates of recall on newly-learned facts when students thought those facts were saved on a computer for later recovery.” http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-07/15/search-engines-memory

Sparrow et al. designed a bunch of experiments that “prove” this claim. Thus, they holler, the internet changes how we remember. This was echoed by literally hundreds of headlines (Google claims over 600). Here’s a sample:

  • Google Effect: Changes to our Brains
  • Search engines like Google ‘changing the way human memory works’
  • Search engines change how memory works
  • Google Is Destroying Our Memories, Scientists Find
  • It pays to remember, search engines ruining our memory
  • Google rewiring the way we remember, study says
  • Has Google turned your memory to mush?
  • Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim
  • Researchers: Search Engines Supplanting Our Memory
  • Google changing way brain remembers information

Many of these headlines are from “reputable” publications and they can be summarized by three words: Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!

All they had to do is read this part of the abstract to understand that nothing like the stuff they blather about follows from the study:

“The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”

But they were not helped by Science whose publication of these results is more of a self-serving stunt than a serious attempt to further knowledge. The title of the original “Google Effects on Memory” is all but designed to generate bat-shit crazy headlines. If the title were to be truthful, it would have to be “Google has no more effects on memory than a paper and pen or a friend.” Even the Science Magazine report on the study entitled “Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory” concludes it “doesn’t directly answer that question”. In fact, it says that the internet is filling in the role of “transactive memory” which describes the fact that we rely on people to remember things. Which means it has no impact on our brains at all. It just magnifies the transactive effects already in existence.

Any claim about a special effect of Google on any kind of memory can be debunked in two words: “shopping list”! All Sparrow at al. discovered is that the internet has changed us as much as a stub of a pencil and a grubby piece of paper. Meaning, not at all.

Some headlines cottoned onto this but they are few and far between:

  • Search Engine “Memory Loss” in Fact a Sign of Smart Behavior‎
  • Search Engines Ruin Our Memory, Make Us Smarter

Sparrow, the lead author of the study, when interviewed by Wired said: “It’s very similar to how we use people in our lives, The internet is really just an interface with a lot of other people.”

In other words, What the internet has changed is the deployment of strategies we have always used for managing our memory. Sparrow et al. use an old term “transactive memory” to describe this but that’s needed only because cognitive psychology’s view of memory has been so limited. Memory is not just about storage and retrieval. Like all of our cognition it is tied in with a whole host of strategies (sometimes lumped together under the heading of metacognition) that have a transactive and social dimension.

Let’s take the example of mobile phones. About 15 years ago I remembered about 4 phone numbers (home, work, mother, friend). Now, I remember none. They’re all stored in my mobile phone. What’s happened? I changed my strategy of information storage and retrieval because of the technology available. Was this a radical change? No, because I needed a lot more number so I carried a little booklet where I kept the rest of the numbers. So the mobile phone freed my memory of four items. Big deal! Arguably, these four items have a huge potential transactional impact. They mean that if my mobile phone is dead or lost, I cannot call the people most likely to be able to offer assistance. But how often does that happen? It hasn’t happened to me yet in an emergency. And in an non-emergency I have many backups. At any rate, in the past I was much more likely to be caught up in an emergency where I couldn’t find a phone at all. So the change has been fairly minimal.

But what’s more interesting here is that I didn’t realize this change until I heard someone talk about it. This transactional change is a topic of conversation, it is not just something that happened, it is part of common knowledge (and common knowledge only becomes common because of a lot of people talk about it to a lot of other people).

The same goes for the claims made by Sparrow et al. The strategies used to maintain access to factual knowledge have changed with the technology available. But they didn’t just change, people have been talking about this change. “Just Google it” is a part of daily conversation. In his podcasts, Leo Laporte has often talked about how his approach to remembering has changed with the advent of Google. One early strategy for remembering websites has been the Bookmark. People have made significant collections of bookmarks to sites, not unlike rollodexes of old. But about five or so years ago Google got a lot better at finding the right sites, so bookmarks went away. Personally, now that Chrome syncs bookmarks so seemlessly, I’ve started using them again. Wow, change in technology, facilitates a change in strategy. Sparrow et al. should do some research on this. Since I started using the Internet when it was still spelled with a capital “I”, I still remember urls of key websites: Google, Yahoo, Gmail, BBC, my own, etc. But there are people who don’t. I’ve personally observed a highly intelligent CEO of a company to type “Google” in the Bing search box in Internet Explorer. And a few years ago, after a university changed its portal, I was soothing an angry professor, who complained that the link to Google was removed from the page that automatically came up on his computer. He never learned how to get there any other way because he didn’t need to. Now he does. We acquire strategies to deal with information as we need them.

Before the availability of writing (and even after), there were a whole lot of strategies available for remembering things. These were part of the cultural conversation as much as the internet is today. Some of these strategies became part of religious ritual. Some of them are a part of a trickster’s arsenal – Joshua Foer describes some in Moonwalking with Einstein. Many are part of the art of “study skills” many people talk about.

All that Sparrow et al. demonstrated is that when some of these strategies are deployed, it has a small effect on recall. This is not a bad thing to know but it’s not in any way worth over 600 media stories about it. To evaluate this much reduced claim we would have to carefully examine their research methodology and the underlying assumptions which is not what this post is about. It’s about the mistreatment of research results by media hungry academics.

I don’t begrudge Sparrow et al. their 15 minutes of fame. I’m not surprised, dismayed or even disappointed at the link greed of the journalistic herd who fell over themselves to uncritically spread this research fluff. Also, many of the actual articles were quite balanced about the findings but how much of that balance will survive the effect of a mendatiously bombastic headline is anybody’s guess. So all in all it’s business as usual in the popularization of “science” in the “media”.

ResearchBlogging.org Bohannon, J. (2011). Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory Science, 333 (6040), 277-277 DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6040.277

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

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