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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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The death of a memory: Missing metaphors of remembering and forgetting?

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I have forgotten a lot of things in my life. Names, faces, numbers, words, facts, events, quotes. Just like for anyone, forgetting is as much a part of my life as remembering. Memories short and long come and go. But only twice in my life have I seen a good memory die under suspicious circustances.

Both of these were good reliable everyday memories as much declarative as non-declarative. And both died unexpectedly without warning and without reprieve. They were both memories of entry codes but I retrieved both in different ways. Both were highly contextualised but each in a different way.

The first time was almost 20 years ago (in 1993) and it was the PIN for my first bank card (before they let you change them). I’d had it for almost two years by then using it every few days for most of that period. I remembered it so well that even after I’d been out of the country for 6 months and not even thinking about it once, I walked up to an ATM on my return and without hesitation, typed it in. And then, about 6 months later, I walked up to another ATM, started typing in the PIN and it just wasn’t there. It was completely gone. I had no memory of it. I knew about the memory but the actual memory completely disappeared. It wasn’t a temporary confusion, it was simply gone and I never remembered it again. This PIN I remembered as a number.

The second death occurred just a few days ago. This time, it was the entrance code to a building. But I only remembered it as a shape on the keypad (as I do for most numbers now). In the intervening years, I’ve memorised a number of PINs and entrance codes. Most I’ve forgetten since, some I remember even now (like the PIN of a card that expired a year ago but I’d only used once every few months for many years). Simply, the normal processes you’d expect of memory. But this one, I’ve been using for about a year since they’d changed it from the previous one. About five months ago I came back from a month-long leave and I remembered it instantly. But three days ago, I walked up to the keypad and the memory was gone. I’d used the keypad at least once if not twice that day already. But that time I walked up to the keypad and nothing. After a few tries I started wondering if I might be typing in the old code since before the change so I flipped the pattern around (I had a vague memory of once using it to remember the new pattern) and it worked. But the working pattern felt completely foreign. Like one I’d never typed in before. I suddenly understood what it must feel like for someone to recognize their loved one but at the same time be sure that it’s not them. I was really discomfitted by this impostor keypad pattern. For a few moments, it felt really uncomfortable – almost an out of body (or out of memory) experience.

The one thing that set the second forgetting apart from the first one was that I was talking to someone as it happened (the first time I was completely alone on a busy street – I still remember which one, by the way). It was an old colleague who visited the building and was asking me if I knew the code. And seconds after I confidently declared I did, I didn’t. Or I remembered the wrong one.

So in the second case, we could conclude that the presence of someone who had been around when the previous code was being used, triggered the former memory and overrode the latter one. But the experience of complete and sudden loss, I recall vividly, was the same. None of my other forgettings were so instant and inexplicable. And I once forgot the face of someone I’d just met as soon and he turned around (which was awkward since he was supposed to come back in a few minutes with his car keys – so I had to stand in the crowd looking expectantly at everyone until the guy returned and nodded to me).

What does this mean for our metaphors of memory based on the various research paradigms? None seem to apply. These were not repressed memories associated with traumatic events (although the forgetting itself was extremely mildly traumatic). These were not quite declarative memories nor were they exactly non-declarative. They both required operations in working memories but were long-term. They were both triggered by context and had a muscle-memory component. But the first one I could remember as a number whereas the second one only as a shape and only on that specific keypad. But neither were subject to long-term decay. In fact, both proved resistant to decay surving long or longish periods of disuse. They both were (or felt) as solid memories as my own name. Until they were there no more. The closest introspective analogy to me seems Luria’s man who remembered too much who once forgot a white object because he placed it against white background in his memory which made it disappear.

The current research on memory seems to be converging on the idea that we reconstruct our memories. Our brains are not just some stores with shelves from which memories can be plucked. Although, memories are highly contextual, they are not discrete objects encoded in our brain as files on a harddrive. But for these two memories, the hard drive metaphor seems more appropriate. It’s as if a tiny part of my brain that held those memories was corrupted and they simply winked out of existence at the flip of a bit. Just like a hard drive.

There’s a lot of research on memory loss, decay and reliability but I don’t know of any which could account for these two deaths. We have many models of memory which can be selectively applied to most memory related events but these two fall between the cracks.

All the research I could find is either on sudden specific-event-induced amnesia (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1961972/?page=1) or senescence (http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/89/3/539.extract). In both cases, there are clear causes to the memory and loss is much more total (complete events or entire identity). I could find nothing about the sudden loss of a specific reliable memory in a healthy individual (given that it only happened twice 18 years apart – I was 21 when it happened first – I assume this is not caused by any pathology in my brain) not precipitated by any traumatic (or other) event. Yet, I suspect this happens all the time… So what gives?

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