Are we outsourcing our brains to the Internet?

If I'm listening to a song with my husband and can’t remember the name of the singer, I'll usually ask him if he knows.

In trivia quizzes I am usually useful for the medical questions but useless for the sports ones, that’s where a particular friend comes in handy. This sharing of information we need and obtain from others is called “transactive memory”.

This was first described 30 years ago as meaning the division of the work or remembering shared information which is great as it frees us up from having to have duplicate sets of memory.

Today we now have so much more access to other information beyond our family members, books and encyclopaedias. So where do we go to now when we have a question we want answered?

Well it’s quite likely to be Google.

The way we use the Internet today has drastically changed our ability to obtain information. But is it changing how our brain uses that information for future use as well?

That was a question that a researcher Betsy Sparrow recently set out to answer and her findings are really interesting.

And probably as you would expect, she found that people would often anticipate using the Internet to look up the answers to questions they weren’t sure of.

What was also interesting was that people were better able to remember the information, if they were told they would not be able to save it for future reference. Plus those who were asked to remember the information and where it was saved on their computer actually had better recall for where to find it than the actual information itself.

What does this mean?

Well perhaps using the Internet allows our brain to not have to do so much work, especially if we are confident the information will always be there. We just need to know where to look for it. As another psychologist Roddy Roediger from Washington University said “why remember something if I know I can look it up again?”.

He also suggests that because we now have access to an ever-increasing information rich environment, this could be contributing to the so-called “Flynn effect”. This is the gradual increase in IQ score that has been observed over the last century.

What have you noticed for yourself or for your family in terms of their studying habits?

Do you think the Internet is useful in this way, or do you worry that we are outsourcing our brains too much to modern technology? Let me know, I'd love to hear what you think.

Ref: Sparrow,S., Liu,J., Wegner, D.M. Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 14 July 2011 DOI 10.1126/science.1207745

Bohannon, J. Searching for the Google effect on memory. Science. Vol 333 15 July 2011 pg 277