According to research study titled "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips" by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow published July 14 in Science, the "rise of Internet search engines like Google has changed the way our brain remembers information: We now focus on remembering information sources rather than the information itself."
In the study tests were conducted in four parts:
First, participants were asked to answer a series of difficult trivia questions. Then they were immediately tested to see if they had increased difficulty with a basic color naming task, which showed participants words in either blue or red. Their reaction time to search engine-related words, like Google and Yahoo, indicated that, after the difficult trivia questions, participants were thinking of Internet search engines as the way to find information.
Second, the trivia questions were turned into statements. Participants read the statements and were tested for their recall of them when they believed the statements had been saved--meaning accessible to them later as is the case with the Internet--or erased. Participants did not learn the information as well when they believed the information would be accessible, and performed worse on the memory test than participants who believed the information was erased.
The third test confirmed much the same: When data will be accessible later, we don't remember it as well.
In the final part of the study, participants were shown trivia statements and then shown where that data would be accessible (specifically, in one of five folders on a computer). Users could remember the location of the data far more often than they could recall the data itself.
According to Sparrow, a greater understanding of how our memory works in a world with search engines has the potential to change teaching and learning in all fields.
"Our brains rely on the internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker," said Sparrow. "We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found."
"Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization," said Sparrow. "And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding."