Google Is Making You More Forgetful

Quartz flagged an interesting report with an ominous name on Thursday: According to research by the cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab, “digital amnesia” is gradually blotting out our brains.

The report surveyed 6,000 adults in six Western European countries, as well as 1,000 people in the United States, about things such as the phone numbers they memorize and what they do when they need to remember a fact. Among Americans, half said they would try to look up an answer online before trying to remember it, and 29 percent said they would probably forget it again right after. Europeans weren’t quite so bad, but pretty similar: 36 percent said they Google first and think later; 24 percent admitted they would forget the Googled thing as soon as they closed their browser.

Across the board, everybody’s obsessed with their smartphones: More than 40 percent say their phone contains “everything they need to know.”

Granted, you probably don’t need a laboratory study or a large-scale survey to confirm a phenomenon you’ve observed yourself. How many people memorize phone numbers anymore? How many get around without consulting Google Maps?

But while it’s undeniably true that we rely on technology as a sort of memory aid, the jury is still very much out as to whether that’s a positive or negative thing. After all, the issue can be framed in two different ways: Either the Internet is replacing our natural mental capacity, or it’s augmenting it.

That may seem counterintuitive, but consider two oft-forgotten (heh) facts about how memory works. First off, memory isn’t – and has never been – a solo endeavor, constrained to your head. Research suggests that we’ve always relied heavily on other people, as well as on tools like diaries and Post-its, to remember all kinds of biographical and general facts. This is called “transactive memory,” and it basically means that we store information not just in our brains – but in the objects and people around us.

Second, “remembering” isn’t an inherently good thing, and forgetting isn’t inherently bad. It doubtlessly doesn’t seem that way when you’re punching in repeated wrong PIN numbers at the ATM. But generally speaking, your brain has only so much space to store memories – rather like your phone. At some point, you have to delete all those old photos and apps to take new ones.

This brings us back to the specter of “digital amnesia”: the idea that our computers somehow hurt our memory. But when you remember that we’ve always stored memories in outside people and things, and that we don’t have the capacity to remember everything, the phenomenon looks less like amnesia and more like prudent outsourcing.

That was, in fact, the conclusion of three psychologists who studied the “Google effect” in 2011: Although their results were widely interpreted as evidence that Google makes us forget, the researchers themselves were far more optimistic.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools,” they wrote, “growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

The technologist and Columbia law professor Tim Wu has written what is perhaps the clearest defense of this development: If a time traveler from the early 1900s encountered a modern-day person with a smartphone and spoke to her through a curtain, what would he think? He’d be amazed by her ability to solve complex equations, to answer obscure trivia questions, to quote things in foreign languages. To him, the smartphone user would seem like some kind of genius. (To us, she’d just seem like some chick with a phone.)

“With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods,” Wu writes, “though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to.”

Besides, raw human memory isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Take this amnesia report from Kaspersky: It came out four months ago – long enough for us to forget the first round of coverage and start reanalyzing.

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