A hot new study making the rounds says that search engines like Google have changed the way people recall information. When folks think they will have future access to whatever they are looking up (i.e. they can just Google it again), they are less likely to remember the information and more likely to remember where to access it. If people thought they wouldn’t be able to find it later, they were “significantly more likely” to remember it.
In one very real way, this isn’t actually news in the sense that people are reporting it. (Much of the response to the study seems to be “Google Might Be Bad For Your Memory,” which is reductive and not really accurate.) People have always relied on other individuals for information. Knowing who else knows information is the basis of transactive memory. Jonah Lehrer says we treat Google, or any search engine, like a particularly clever friend:
What interests me about this study is the way it reveals the bounded nature of memory. Although we like to think of our cortical hard drive as infinite in capacity, it’s actually pretty constrained, which is why we’re always looking for ways to not remember stuff. If we know that a fact is only a Google away, then we’re not going to waste precious synaptic space on it. Better to let a server remember.
This is the kind of study proving that which plenty of people already believed. Nicholas Carr has chimed in with a thoughtful and interesting post discussing the difference between external storage and biological memory, and he makes a good point that when we form memories we also create associations between those and our other memories.
Still, I don’t think the real news here is about Google’s negative effect on our memory. The fact that we remember where we can find the information, rather than the information itself, is actually a good thing and suggests a very nifty adaptation by our minds. As Lehrer says, there’s no point in wasting the “synaptic space” when we know the information is a click away. This is the neural version of teaching someone to fish rather than just catching them a fish; in this day and age, it’s more important to know how to get information rather than simply trying to remember and retain everything. This is crucial because if we remember how we found something — if we remember the particular search tricks we used to locate one particular tidbit — we can use that memory to help us search for things in the future. Our brains aren’t just going to remember individual bits of information. They’re going remember how to find more information down the line, expediting the process of finding the next thing we need to know.