Are you losing your memory thanks to the Internet?

The ability to continually look up information is changing how and what we remember. But maybe that's not a bad thing.

By Evan Ratliff
Published August 14, 2008 5:05PM (EDT)

What does the Internet actually do to your memory? Over at the Britannica blog, University of Chicago sociologist James Evans has added another thoughtful entry in an ongoing discussion of whether and how the Internet is changing the way we think. Writer Nicholas Carr launched the discussion in this month's Atlantic Monthly, with his pessimistic take on the topic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Although the debate prompted by Carr's piece has been wide ranging, the general issue at hand is whether and how our time spent online, hopping from one site to the next, affects the way we read, the way we think and the way we research (although often the discussions seem to reduce to just the question of reading online versus reading books). But I'm also interested in one aspect they touch on but don't explicitly address: the effect of the Web and gadget usage on how and what we remember.

To take a trivial example that is no doubt true for a lot of people, I don't memorize phone numbers anymore, even of friends and family members whom I call often. They're stored in my phone, which I always have, so there just isn't much incentive. So is that degrading my ability to remember 10-digit numbers? Perhaps because I'm in my 30s and had a cellphone for less than a decade, that skill -- if indeed it is a skill -- is already deeply ingrained. But what if I'd grown up never having memorized phone numbers? What about geographical or historical information, both of which I probably access online in surprisingly greater proportion to how often I access it from my own memory?

It seems logical to assume that the continual ability to look up information -- now anytime, anywhere for a fair number of people with Web-enabled phones -- must have some long-term impact on not only our desire to remember that information but the allocation of cognitive resources devoted to remembering it. But is that really true? And is it a negative? It's possible that those resources are freed up for something more valuable. I've found very little reliable research on the topic. (The only study Carr cites, from University College London, describes how online readers exhibit "skimming behavior." James Evans' own study concerns how researchers approach scientific literature.)

It seems to me there might be one clue in the study of "transactive memory," which at its most basic is "a shared system for encoding, storing, and retrieving information." Defined by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Wegner and colleagues, transactive memory has been shown in married couples, who over time rely on each other to remember certain categories of information. So if the husband is better at remembering details from television programs, and the wife at remembering friends' birthdays, they each hand off that responsibility to the other, and retrieve the information when they need it. Wenger describes it this way:

Each partner can enjoy the benefits of the pair's memory by assuming responsibility for remembering just those items that fall clearly to him or to her and then by attending to the categories of knowledge encoded by the partner so that items within those categories can be retrieved from the partner when they are needed.

Perhaps the Web, then, is like a spouse who is around all the time, with a particular knack for factual memory of all varieties. Under that (admittedly armchair) theory, we would be getting the advantages of a memory freed to focus on other things, but the concurrent losses of potentially valuable abilities. But it still doesn't address how permanent those changes are in your brain. Would your memory revert if you quit the Web cold turkey? Would you need to retrain it?

I've seen discussion of the implications of transactive memory for social epidemics (most famously in "The Tipping Point") and group dynamics, but nothing on how it might play a role in our memories vis-à-vis the Internet. I'm no expert, though, so maybe someone can point me to that, or other research into how the Net is actually shaping our brain. There have to be doctoral students out there right now, working on clever studies about what having Google in your pocket does to your retentive abilities.

Evan Ratliff

Evan Ratliff is a contributing editor to Wired magazine, and the co-author of "Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World."

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