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September 25, 2013

Is Google wrecking our memory?

(Continued)

And as it turns out, this is what we're doing with Google and Evernote and our other digital tools. We're treating them like crazily memorious friends who are usually ready at hand. Our "intimate dyad" now includes a silicon brain.

Recently, a student of Wegner's — the Columbia University scientist Betsy Sparrow — ran some of the first experiments that document this trend. She gave subjects sentences of random trivia (like "An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain" and "The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry over Texas in Feb. 2003.") and had them type the sentences into a computer. With some facts, the students were explicitly told the information wouldn't be saved. With others, the screen would tell them that the fact had been saved, in one of five blandly named folders, such as FACTS, ITEMS or POINTS. When Sparrow tested the students, the people who knew the computer had saved the information were less likely to personally recall the info than the ones who were told the trivia wouldn't be saved. In other words, if we know a digital tool is going to remember a fact, we're slightly less likely to remember it ourselves.

We are, however, confident of where in the machine we can refind it. When Sparrow asked the students simply to recall whether a fact had been saved or erased, they were better at recalling the instances where a fact had been stored in a folder. As she wrote in a Science paper, "believing that one won't have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself, whereas believing the information was saved externally enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed." Each situation strengthens a different type of memory. Another experiment found that subjects were really good at remembering the specific folder names containing the right factoid, even though the folders had extremely unremarkable names.

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