Is the Internet Changing the Way We Remember?

“A study in 2019 found that the spatial memory used for navigating through the world tends to be worse for people who’ve made extensive use of map apps and GPS devices…” reports NBC News.

But that’s just the beginning, according to Adrian Ward, who studies psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. NBC says Ward’s research suggests “People who lean on a search engine such as Google may get the right answers but they can also end up with a wrong idea of how strong their own memory is.”

In Ward’s research, published in October in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, he used a series of eight experiments to test how people used and thought about their own knowledge as they completed short quizzes of general knowledge. Some participants had access to Google while answering the questions — “What is the most widely spoken language in the world?” was one — while others did not. They also completed surveys. He found that people who used Google were more confident in their own ability to think and remember, and erroneously predicted that they would know significantly more in future quizzes without the help of the internet. Ward attributed that to Google’s design: simple and easy, less like a library and more like a “neural prosthetic” that simulates a search in a human brain.

“The speed makes it so you never understand what you don’t know,” Ward said.

The findings echo and build on earlier research, including a widely cited 2011 paper on the “Google effect”: a phenomenon in which people are less likely to remember information if they know they can find it later on the internet…. In a review of recent studies in the field, published in September, researchers at Duke University found that the “externalization” of memories into digital spheres “changes what people attend to and remember about their own experiences.” Digital media is new and different, they wrote, because of factors such as how easily images are edited or the huge number of memories at people’s fingertips.

Each photographic cue means another chance for a memory to be “updated,” maybe with a false impression, and each manipulation of a piece of social media content is a chance for distortion, wrote the researchers, doctoral student Emmaline Drew Eliseev and Elizabeth Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of a lab dedicated to studying memory.