Nowadays, most of us have constant access to information. This is a result of technological developments that seemed far-fetched only a decade ago. Today when we wish to know something, for example the outcome of a football match or the name of the capital city of some country, all we have to do is to turn on our laptop computer, our tablet or our smartphone, type in our search keywords, and the answer is revealed to us within a fraction of a second. The ability to find information at the very moment that we request it has become so obvious for us that when we are away from the Internet and cannot find an answer instantly, we become frustrated and annoyed. It is also becoming more and more uncommon for us to willingly go offline for long periods of time. In fact, most of us would have a hard time to recall how we found information prior to the Internet, which has become an essential part of our lives.

In August 2011, in an article published in the prestigious Science magazine, psychologists Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel Wegner described how the Internet, and particularly the search engine Google and other databases, have become a fundamental part of our lives and our way of thinking. The need and the ability to store information in external media have of course been around since the dawn of civilization. In fact, in any long-term relationship and in any team work environment, people develop a collective memory. The researchers called this phenomenon "transactive memory", which is a combination of all memories retrievable by all members of a group, directly or through his/her acquaintance with the other group members. Much like computers in a network that can share their memories, groups of people, and even couples, form a network of shared memory systems. Sparrow, Liu and Wegner examined whether online access to search engines, databases and their likes is tantamount to transactive memory. Their research was based on the following questions:

1. Has the Internet become an external memory storage system that replaces our brain?

For example, when asked which countries have a single color flag, would we try to retrieve such flags from our own memory or would we prefer to immediately Google up an answer? 

2. When information becomes accessible, is it encoded in our memory as the place where the information can be found or as the piece of information itself?

In order to answer these questions the participants were asked a series of yes/no trivia questions with different levels of difficulty (e.g. is an ostrich's eye bigger than its brain?) in various states of access to computers and ability to store and retrieve information.

The results led to the following conclusions:

1. When people require information they immediately think about computers (experiment no. 1).

2. People tend to forget pieces of information which they believe will be accessible to them and remember those that they think will not be accessible (experiments 2 & 3).

3. People remember better where a piece of information is stored rather than what it actually is (experiment 4).

These findings shed light on the social-collective aspects of memory and suggest that human memory processes adapt to new technologies of communication. Much like our familial and social relationships, we develop symbiotic relationships with our computers. We are relying on them more and more as our main source of information alongside with our friends and colleagues, and we lose this information when they become out of reach. The experience of losing access to the Internet is becoming similar to losing a friend. We must stay online constantly in order to retrieve what Google remembers for us.

  • Food for thought

Before filing this article in your memory (remember where!) it is important to think about its implications (its essence). How is it significant for us as science teachers? What are its implications on teaching and learning?

Dr. Deborah Cohen
Davidson Institute of Science Education

Reference:

Sparrow Betsy, Liu Jenny, Wegner Daniel M. (5.8.2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333 . 776-778

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