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Is Internet Search Dumbing Down our Memories and Ruining our Mental Agility?

Updated on November 15, 2016
janderson99 profile image

John uses his scientific skills (PhD) & experience developing 50+ websites to research, review & evaluate SEO, website design, Social Media

The calculator destroyed our mental arithmetic. The spellchecker ruined our ability to spell correctly. Email has terminated out letter writing. Texting has stunted our expression. Now it has been suggested that our use of search engines has starved our brain of memories and corrupted our thought processes and perhaps degraded our mental agility. We all are now reliant on the umbilical cord of the internet to connect into its memory banks and influence to support our degraded brains.

Technology has made things easier to do but is it dumbing down our abilities?

To add insult to injury, Google now provides autosuggestion for search to tells us what we are thinking before we have completed typing it into the search box. All this to save a second or two.

We have stopped memorizing things - We know we can always Google it. We have gained a lot but what have we lost.

Research has shown that many students no longer read the book on their reading list, but simply write essays by searching for reviews on the internet. A new skill has come to the fore - the ability to know how to search on the internet to find the 'good stuff'. Another new skill is remember how and where to find information, rather than memorising it.

A quality essay now depends more on our ability to find the 'good stuff' rather than do a high quality job developing ideas by analyzing what's in the brain and adding some original thought. The ability know where to look, to persevere and keep hunting until the exact information is found is the new skill everyone must learn.

There is another issue about the quality of information on the internet and how to separate the 'good stuff' from the dross - but that is another topic for anther day!

We all rely more and more on the internet as a quick, easy and readily available way of checking facts, getting advice and learning how to do various things. In some ways the internet has upgraded or extended our internal memory chips in our brains. It is an external memory upgrade. Using computers we can tap into millions of terabytes of information on the internet. Stuff that we could never remember in our limited of brains.

Some have argued that the memory expansion of the internet means that we can store only the links to find the information in our brains, not the information itself. Further they argue that this downgrades our ability to think and analyse with a brain starved on memories. Others have countered that by knowing we can tap into the vast knowledge banks externally, this frees up space in our limited brains for complex analysis tasks.

In a sense we can all claim to be experts on everything, not by having the information in our own memories, but by becoming experts at knowing where to find the facts.

It is like being able to tap into a vast traditional library of books, but the catalogue of Internet search is much more powerful, and we no longer have to go through all the shelves to find the book and actually read the books to find the information.

But is the availability of this vast external memory store and its ease of access dumbing down our memories and dumbing down our mental abilities because there is less stored in our brains that can be processed and analysed consciously and unconsciously? That is the question.

Researcher Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues at Columbia University recently conducted various experiments that showed that if people know that they can find information on the internet or a computer, they memorize less of the information. Instead they memorize where to find it ( like a link or hyperlink on an internet document). The memory focus changes from the information itself to where the information can be found.

All of us have experienced the frustration of not being able to refind information on the internet. It is all about the set of keywords used for the search or critical tags or other terms which are vital for generating the same search results and so getting the same information. Remembering how to find things is not limited to the internet as we are all aware.

To test the subject's reliance on computers and the world wide web, Dr Sparrow asked a group of students to read and re-type a series of written statements in a set of tests.

To test the subject's reliance on computers and the world wide web, Dr Sparrow asked a group of students to read and re-type a series of written statements in a set of tests.

For one test participants the subjects typed 40 short sentences of trivia and facts - for example, 'The Pacific Ocean is less salty than the Atlantic Ocean' - into a computer. Half of the subjects were told the information they entered would be saved on the computer; the other half believed the information would be erased. Test showed that subjects remembered less of the information, if they thought they could look it up on the computer.

A second test was designed to show whether computer access affects what was committed to memory. The subjects were asked to type and remember various statements and store them in one of five folders on the computers. One example was 'Does an Italian deck of card contain jacks'. The researchers found that the subjects could remember the folder in which the information was stored, better than the information itself.
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What are the Implications from this Study?

Argument 1: The Internet Enhances our Memories by Freeing the Mind of Facts allowing more Room for Thinking and Analysis

Dealing with the Limited Size of our Memory Banks

The less trivia and piles of mundane facts you have to remember, the more of our limited brain is freed up to work on ideas. Our brains have a limited capacity and are programmed to find ways of not remembering information. It is better to use Google and the internet as the store for facts and figures that we know we can always look up. We also do this with conversions between yards and metres and for lots of other facts and ways of doing things.

Reprocessing memory after recall

Every time we recall a memory we also re-process it. This why the more often we recall something, the less accurate the memory becomes. With each recall we update it and we eliminate various details to save space. As a consequence the memory becomes less accurate. A memory is not fixed, it is not a snap-shot, the image can be edited. The memory is only as real as the last time you recalled it and edited it. Why do we make the changes? One theory is that it helps ensure our memories are kept up to date, and modified in the context of recent experiences. Perhaps it is to save space?

© janderson99-HubPages

Desire for the latest

In this sense, instinctually wanting to rely on Google for information and to not entrusting our memories is the right thing to do. Our memories may be out of date, whereas the internet is instantly upgraded and always up to date. So we save hard drive space on our brains for what matters, improving the accuracy of recall and relying on the Internet for the bulk of what we need to know..

The notion of focusing on what is important has been supported by research that shows that people can be trained to improve their IQ scores. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that the IQ scores could be increased via simple mental training exercise and that the boost to IQ lasted for more than three months. The improvement related to increasing the general ability to solve new problems and recognize unfamiliar patterns, not to rote learning.

The IQ boosts were produced via a mental exercise known as the 'n-back' task. It starts by presenting a subject with of a visual cue such as the location of a cartoon character. In the next round, the cue is altered because the cartoon character is moved to a new location, and so on. The task is to press the space bar when the character returns to its original spot. The subject learns to ignore all the other locations are irrelevant. As the subjects progresses through the task, these locations move further back in time, requiring the subjects to sort through an increasing amount of information. This training boosts IQ scores. Why does this boost intelligence test scores? After playing the n-back game for a period of time, the subjects learn to focus more on crucial facts, ignoring irrelevant details and this improved their ability to solve problems The children essentially learnt to better separating the wheat from the chaff. The training did not work for all students and some people have questioned whether the improvements were real or were simply an improvement in the techniques for IQ tests.

Argument 2 - The Internet Corrupts our Memories and Thinking Processes by Starving the Brain of the Things we need to Influence the Way we Think and Analyze Information.

When we form, or integrate a personal memory, it is not stored or processed in isolation. We also form links between that memory and other memories. The memories are also used to develop deep, abstract conceptual knowledge. The links and associations between memories are in a state of flux and continue to change with time. The memories are reprocessed and upgraded as we learn more, add more memories and experience more. Consequently, personal memory is not a collection of discrete experiences and facts we store in our brains, but the influences and associations which binds all those experiences and facts together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion between memories?

When we use and become reliant on the internet an external memory source, that we can access at any time, we store less in our brains and so we are less able to digest and analyse the information within our brains. It is claimed that the range and type of information and memories stored in our brains is greatly reduced and this must affect the quality of our thoughts and analysis.

The same argument was used by Plato, thousand years ago who argued very strongly against the written word which he claimed would foster false knowledge. How similar this is to arguments that the internet today will cause similar damage.

Intelligence isn't measured by your ability to recall trivial data, but to analyze and understand complexity of systems. By memorizing less we are downgrading the information we process in our brains to conduct analysis. The poet Harold Bloom highlighted the importance of what is in our memories and the way our brains process it. [ THE ANATOMY OF INFLUENCE. Literature as a Way of Life, By Harold Bloom; 357 pp. Yale University Press. ]


The concept is, if we starve our brains of memories by relying on the internet there will be fewer memories in our brains for our subconscious to work on, analyse and reprocess. The internet is great for storing facts by not for analyzing - except for finding other people's analysis. Starving our brains of memories corrupts and downgrades our thinking and creates an unhealthy reliance on the internet.

I guess it is for the reader to decide whether the internet is friend or foe for thought.

© 2011 Dr. John Anderson


Submit a Comment
  • Uninvited Writer profile image

    Susan Keeping 

    7 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

    I'm currently reading The Shallows about how the Internet is changing our brains. Of course I've been reading it for a while...keep going back to other books :)


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