What Is Google Effect? Is It Affecting Your Memory?

Convenience – it is a perk of modern living and the driving force behind many innovations.

We have all dreamt of a future made easier through technological change. Rarely, if ever, do we consider that technology, in fact, could be changing us. Enter the ‘Google effect’.

The Google Effect

Research suggests that having all the information we want at our fingertips is affecting what we remember.

The appropriately named ‘Google effect’ is defined as the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online.

The phenomenon was first observed in a 2011 study which tested subjects’ ability to remember and recall information.

The majority of the tasks set for the subjects involved reading or writing information, being told the information is saved or not saved, and asking them to recall the information, where it is stored or both.

The study had three main findings:

  1. People seem primed to think of computers when asked general knowledge questions, even if they know the answer.
  2. People tend not to remember information if they think they can look it up later.
  3. People are more likely to remember where information is stored than the actual information.

Subjects also seemed to be able to remember either the information itself or where it is stored, rarely both.

Digital Amnesia

Research commissioned by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky in 2015 further highlighted the impact technology has had on our memories.

Nearly 80% of those surveyed admitted they used the internet as an extension of their brain.

More than a third of those surveyed said they would turn to the internet for an answer to a question as their first option, before even trying to remember it.

Almost a quarter said they would forget the acquired knowledge after it served its purpose.

Dubbing the phenomenon ‘digital amnesia’, the study found that the Google effect is not limited to information readily available online. It seems to include important, personal information as well.

Of respondents in the UK, 45% could recall their home phone number when they were 10 years-old, while 49% could not remember their partner’s number and 71% forgot their children’s number.

The survey of 6,000 people led Kaspersky to claim they had discovered ‘a direct link between the availability of data at the click of a button and a failure to commit that data to memory.’

The veracity of that claim aside, the research does suggest some correlation between the easy storage and retrieval of information and our decision to memorise it.

Are We Over-Reliant on Technology?

It could be argued that this tendency to search for answers on the internet, instead of trying to remember them, is detrimental.

Research suggests that long-term memories are created and reinforced through recalling information repeatedly.

By searching for answers on the internet before trying to remember them, we prevent ourselves from building long-term memories.

Dr Maria Wimber, of the University of Birmingham in the UK, says this trend could make us ‘process information merely on a shallow, moment-to-moment basis.’

The researchers from the 2011 study concluded that ‘The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.’

Dr Kathryn Mills, a neuroscientist at University College London, suggests that our relationships with our digital devices can resemble a human relationship.

In the way we build trust and learn through experience that certain people are reliable, we do much the same with our PCs and smartphones.

This could lead us to rely on our devices as if they were a trusted advisor.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Reliance on technology to the point where our mental capacities become diminished would obviously be a problem.

As would trusting digital devices for all the answers to our questions and all our important information.

Perhaps the solution lies in finding a path that allows us to enjoy the convenience technology affords us, while avoiding the pitfalls of over-reliance.

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