No, Google Is Not Rewiring How We Remember

from the let-it-go dept

There are a bunch of reports out concerning a new study claiming that Google is rewiring how we remember. It sounds good, but it’s not really what the study appears to be saying. Basically, the study is saying that we just don’t work as hard at remembering stuff we know we can access again easily. But I don’t see that as rewiring. I think that’s always been true. It’s the same thing as people not remembering their multiplication tables as carefully, because they know they have a calculator. If anything, it just seems like an efficient use of your brain. The report also notes that people have an easier time remembering where to find certain info than they do remembering the info itself. But, again, that’s just our brains being efficient. So I don’t see how that’s rewiring anything. It’s just a recognition that, thanks to the internet and other technologies, we can have near ubiquitous access to certain kinds of info, and we function better by remembering how to find it, rather than the info itself. In fact, we’ve discussed this before, about how people quite reasonably use things like Google as their backup brain and how that actually has some benefits.

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Comments on “No, Google Is Not Rewiring How We Remember”

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45 Comments
NAMELESS.ONE says:

as i said

if i now link in my mind various technological uses then i can in fact “save memory and time” thus my actually capacity to learn and do more is increased.LIKE um here hackers learned this concept long ago….IF its already there and i can use it why commit somehting to memory , just use a link.

linking is infringing will be a good topic now won’t it. WHAT ya gonna do rip my brains apart.

Greevar (profile) says:

I call bullshit.

This study is full of faulty methods and reasoning. We best retain information our brains deem most important. Where and how we find information is important, more so than the information itself. Trivia is called such because it’s trivial (i.e. not important). The brain puts a low priority on that information. I bet you apples to doughnuts that if you tested how well they retain the memory of where that information came from or the method by which it was discovered, it would reveal that they would almost all remember.

If I asked you how many nations have a predominantly red flag, before the internet existed your first instinct would be to think “Do I know that?”. Your next move would be to, guess what, search for reference (e.g. encyclopedias). When asked for information you don’t have, your first instinct is always to seek out reference. You search the net, look it up in a book, ask someone, one of these things will get you your answer and it’s more effective than memorizing all those bits of information yourself. This is not new or unique to the internet age.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: I call bullshit.

Agree. As soon as I saw this on Ars, I said the same thing. Just another headline grabbing article about the evils of technology when the data doesn’t support the conclusion.

The report also notes that people have an easier time remembering where to find certain info than they do remembering the info itself.

I remember going through school – mostly before the Internet. The way I studied then, and still remember things now is no different. Someone asks me a question, the first thing I think of is where the information is, whether its the page of a textbook or a webpage. I then visualize the page, and have the answer.

Sure I’ll use Google (or search my email archive, or open the webpage or document) to confirm I’m correct. And sure, I’ll search Google for new information I don’t already have.

If the last 300 years of modern science hasn’t rewired our prehistoric-evolved brains, then the last 15 years of the Internet sure as hell has not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Its just a semantical issue. Your brain works by rewiring itself. Thus, if it works differently, it wires itself differently. If it becomes better at remembering where information is stored than it is at remembering information itself, then it becomes wired differently than it was before. Don’t get upset by the use of the word ‘rewire’.

If you use google as your backup brain then your brain has been rewired to use a backup unit. Seriously, is this tricky somehow?

Anonymous Lazy says:

backup brain

So if people are using the net/Google to back up their brain, what happens when the references crash? When your library card is revoked?

It’s also much easier to rifle through someone’s external brain than it is their bio-brain (which involves some nasty saws and glinty sharp objects).

[Please, PLEASE don’t anyone link to the Marathon Man dentist scene. Please. I beg you.]

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: backup brain

true. which is why the re-he-he-he-heally important stuff is either memorised in the primary as well or never backed up in the first place, depending on what it is.

i seem to remember a book or article or something about how humans were ‘always already cyborgs’. (seriously, even just throwing a rock rather than punching something can count if you look at it from the right direction) this is just another example of that ๐Ÿ˜€

kyle clements (profile) says:

disconnected from the source

I think I might be just young enough that remembering a source rather than a detail has always seemed normal to me.

I’ve had older people criticise my outsourcing of memory and calculation abilities to electronic devices. They often say, “What if you are cut off from the internet? Then what will you do? What if your phone is dead? These are basic skills that everyone should have-just in case you find myself without your fancy toys”

I respond by asking them if they know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, or if they can make a spear head by banging rocks, or if they know how to chase down and hunt animals using hand tools. “No? but these are skills everyone should have, just in case you find yourself without your fancy toys!”

Why do people only take issue with how brand new technology affects us?

to paraphrase a quote from Douglas Adams:
Everything invented before you were born is normal. Everything invented before you are 30 is new and exciting.
Everything invented after you are 30 is unnatural and scary.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: disconnected from the source

humm. likewise, i think.

though actually remembering Some of that stuff is still worth it. i mean, i can’t do anything but really basic addition in my head anymore, but give me a pencil and paper and i can do a lot more.

anything other than long division that’s complex enough to need a calculator i’d probably have to look up the equations for as well at this point, mind you.

*ponders* wonder what the computer analog for that is? … maybe that trick where part of the harddrive is used as temporary RAM or something?

i’ve never, Ever been good at memorising stuff (so bad at spelling, and not that great at typing, until i started haning out in a chat room with 20-30 people where the text disappeared off the screen very quickly … ended up learning to spell a lot better by memorising key patterns. turned it into muscle memory rather than memorised ‘this is how you spell this word’. seems to work better.)

ok… rambled badly. i had a point when i started, i’m sure.

freak (profile) says:

Re: disconnected from the source

“I respond by asking them if they know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, or if they can make a spear head by banging rocks, or if they know how to chase down and hunt animals using hand tools. “No? but these are skills everyone should have, just in case you find yourself without your fancy toys!””

I have a lot more fun with this. I grew up in a very small community where my family were the only people under 60. That’s no longer true, families are starting to move back there, but I digress.

I know how to make a stone spear, and hunt animals, and how to make and fire my own bow, and a bunch of other crap.

“Don’t you know how to . . . just in case you lose your fancy tools?” “No? Okay, I’ll teach you!”

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

We Are All Doomed?Yet Again

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

? Plato, on the evils of being able to read and write, around 370BC

indieThing (profile) says:

Tech definitely has an effect

There is definitely something here. Before the days of mobile phones, I used to keep all my ‘active’ phone numbers in my head, I could recall 30-40 at the drop of a hat.

Now, since I’ve been using mobiles, I find it harder to remember bits of information like phone numbers.

The same goes for my programming skills, I used to keep algorithms, code snippets in my head, but now look them up on the internet when necessary.

Tech has definitely made me mentally lazy.

NIcedoggy says:

Well it does rewire the brain, we adapt to certain environments, but I wouldn’t say that it is adapting for the worst, it is doing things differently, but it may be too soon to judge any of it.

The one thing I do know is that anything you don’t use frequently your body will discard and not waste resources on it anymore, so if people don’t remember everything maybe is because they don’t need that knowledge but they still have to cache the location of that knowledge I don’t see how that is going to become something bad since basically what you are doing is storing a different type of data not stopping the use of your brain or anything like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

I had a long talk in the 90s with my highschool teachers about the fact that I had google in my pocket back then. Why in hell should I know route memorization of words when I can look up an odd word on the spot.

Today I had to deal with some cutco salesman lies, I could quickly pull a long list of well reasoned arguments as to why cutco was a crappy company in under a min. The only thing I needed to know before that was that cutco = scam.

Teach me where to find the information, don’t teach me how to memorize it, I wont memorize anything I find is useless.

BongoBern (profile) says:

Remembering and looking up

It was always easier to ask “how do you spell…” instead of looking it up in the dictionary. I remembered if I had to look it up, not so much if I was told. I used to be a good speller until spell check came along, now not so much. In fact spell check often changes a word I don’t want it to change and I DON’T notice! Now that’s bag.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Google rewiring brains

Great article, good analysis.
I will argue that this is a very good thing. When I was younger, even through my 30’s, I had so many things on my mind that I seldom had time to think of new things (same thing as the so-called “absent-minded professor”, who has to clear his/her mind of trivia to deal with important issues; I wasn’t good at doing that).
With Google et al, many of these things are now less intrusive, and I see it in a more productive mind, speaking for myself.

Ralphoo (profile) says:

Using tools does rewire

I agree, bdhoro, and I agree that writing things down does “rewire” the brain in some sense. So does having an axe to chop wood instead of just breaking up dry sticks with your bare hands. Or fixing up a goat bladder to carry around some water instead of having to slurp it up from a lake or stream. In those respects, I would say our brains are rewired beyond recognition by comparison with our hunter-gatherer relatives, but that’s just the way being human has worked out. We get rewired shockingly often, and more so every week.

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