back to article Google turning us into forgetful morons, warn boffins

Search engine abuse use is re-wiring the way our brains store information, boffins have claimed. Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow led research into the impact of the internet on the old grey matter with the findings published in a paper, Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at …


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  1. Justicesays

    What did we used to do...

    "[We] started talking about what we used to do [to find information] before we had either a smartphone or a laptop," she said."

    Well, in the case of an actor who looked familiar , you would just give up , or maybe constantly rack your brains for days until they eventually give in and produce an answer you have no way of verifying. Its possible you might have been able to bug someone you know to produce a random selection of answers until you settle on one you think is correct.

    The ability to jump online and look stuff up means people spend more time filling their heads with easy to find trivia (like what other films that actor starred in) ,surely this would impact memory retention as well due to increased exposure to incidental stuff there is little benefit in remembering.

    Forgetting all the useless crap you look up on the internet seems like the ideal behavior, rather than becoming some wikipedia/imdb/google "fact" spouting "rain man".

    1. AdamWill

      or alternatively... waited half an hour for the end credits.

      My mother still spends ten minutes at the end of every movie watching the credits and going "ohhhh, of course the fat tourist was <insert name of obscure character actor here>!"

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    what was the post about already?

    10 years old news. Just another confirmation.

    Good thing is , as our brain spend less resources to store data, it can concentrate on other things... or not

    paris, coz, she is our future

  3. The Drillmon

    Google Effects on Memory

    The article stresses incompletely accurate highlights of the research, I think. The research states that we, as Internet-using modern people, use Google and other search engines as a form of transactive memory; that is to say, where we once relied on a friend or a spouse to recall names or dates, and thus we did not bother to retain the information ourselves, now we know that we need not remember trivia, we need only to type the question in "Google".

    There is no implication that we are becoming "dumber" as a species; on the contrary, the research indicates that we are adapting, in a technologically-savvy fashion, to the concept that we need only to use the Internet as a memory storage device, and can thus concentrate on processing the information for conceptual use, instead of memorizing the date of the Battle of Hastings or the name of the 23rd President of the United States.

    1. Graham Marsden

      "concentrate on processing the information for conceptual use"


      Why should I need to be able to instantly call to mind who was King in 1605 (to pick a date at random)?

      But a quick search reveals it was James the 6th of Scotland and 1st of England and, ah yes, he ended the war between Britain and Spain, survived the Gunpowder Plot because the Catholics didn't want a Protestant on the throne , established trade with Japan and other countries through the East India Company etc.

      The latter information is far more useful in a historical context since, as (checks again) Satayana said "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

      Remembering the order of Kings is less important than understanding what they did as part of a historical process.

  4. James Boag

    may i be the

    No sorry Lost it .

  5. Gulfie

    Fair point but...

    As Einstein said himself - why memorise what is written down in a book? If you use something often enough - a second language, a smartphone, a collection of useful information - then eventually it will stick. If it doesn't stick, and it's available quickly, then what's the problem? Things move so quickly, and time is precious.

    I'm more concerned about people using google searches to pick up 'facts' from unverified sources (I'm looking at you, Wikipedia).

    1. Naughtyhorse
      Thumb Up

      well spotted...

      theres part one of the problem - a significant proportion of 'facts' online are bollocks. (go on! google it i dare you :D)

      and part two - is where everyone becomes stupid(er) when google is not available. Given many scenarios where google is not available needs smart people not eejits - by which i mean end of the world stuff rather than crappy reception.

  6. lurker

    Yeah and..

    Telephony also, think of all the walking we don't do nowadays whenever we need to speak to someone.

    Books, too - storing all that information on paper, when we should be exercising our memories! Burn them all!

    Then there's fire. Not sure I trust that stuff...

    1. Graham Marsden
      Thumb Up

      Then there's fire. Not sure I trust that stuff...

      And coming down from the trees was probably a mistake too (or maybe even leaving the oceans)

      (Thumb icon because...)

  7. SuperTim


    "The idea for the research came to Sparrow when she was watching a film with her husband and could not remember the name of an actress.

    "[We] started talking about what we used to do [to find information] before we had either a smartphone or a laptop," she said."

    I'll tell you what you did, you got frustrated and then one of you would wake up in the middle of the night and blurt it out.

  8. James Downes

    It was ever thus

    This is just another manifestation of the diary effect. When you put something in a diary, you don't remember it, because you don't need to. So if you really don't want to forget an appointment - don't write it down.

    Works for me.

    1. Captain DaFt

      Well, I'm glad it works for you.

      But my poor brain (I almost typed "mind", but I'm sure I don't have one!) seems only capable of memorizing bits and pieces, not the whole thing.

      So if I need to remember "who, when and why" with the proper "who" linked to the right "why" and correct "when", I'd better write it down!

      Then all I have to remember is where I left the freaking appointment book!

      (The icon shows me looking for it)

  9. ratfox

    Freeing up resources

    This count as a good thing to me.

  10. Ilsa Loving

    How is this bad?

    The world today is now so many orders of magnitude more complicated than it was just a few decades ago, that it is impossible to know everything you need to know. From medicines and technology to politics to money matters. There is simply too much that one needs to know in order to perform anything more than day to day tasks.

    Unless humanity suddenly develops some kind of mutation that dramatically improves our natural memory capacity, we have no choice but to rewire our thinking processes so that instead of memorizing things, we learn how to research things as efficiently as possible.

  11. A. Coatsworth

    As professor Jones famously said...

    "I wrote them down (...) so that I wouldn't HAVE to remember" I agree completely with him

    Oh, and yes, I knew where on the Internet I could find the quote, so I checked it because I didn't remember it verbatim.

    Beer because... that's another great way to damage my memory

  12. Blake St. Claire

    Before the web, before government grants

    I wonder where the money came from to do this ground breaking research. A government grant?

    Which then leads me to wonder what useless PhDs did for a living before the government handed out grants to study the bleeding obvious.

    (And get off my lawn.)

  13. Code Monkey

    It's fine

    I noticed I was doing this years ago. There's a lot of dev stuff I just don't remember but as long as I can remember to find the Javadoc or whatever, that's fine. As long as I remember what I'm supposed to be doing this week I can cope with the rest.

    Beer, because...

  14. Gannon (J.) Dick

    Not new, but worse

    In the 1880's or so it became impossible to completely read the literature in a Natural Science discipline. By the time I graduated from College in the 1970's, my education was at best 5% rote memory, 95% Library. This is not new.

    But what if the Library moved every 12 hours ? And, worse, what if the Card Catalog was not indexed to the new physical location, but rather ranked by original physical location ? How many times have you "found" a link only to forget to Bookmark it ? That is worse.

  15. Ru

    Well, I could have told you that.

    Ever managed to run down and slay a gazelle baer-footed and empty handed? Ever managed to light a fire without tinder or spark using only your sheer primal manliness? Though not. It was clearly a mistake to come down from the trees and start using tools. We've become more and more dependent on man-made litter every since.

    Possibly even the trees were a bad idea, and we should never have left the oceans.

    Now, who was the origin of that little quote, I wonder... tip of my tongue...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward



      1. Anonymous Coward


        Now would that be John, Sam, Morticia or Gomez ? I need it for a paper I'm writ ... I mean, it would be interesting to Google in my spare time.

        1. Captain DaFt

          Hang on...

          I'm sure at least two of those had two "d"s in their name!

          "Dadams? Eh, close enough!)

  16. NomNomNom


    is like this

    1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  17. Peter Storm

    I wonder...

    What did University psychologists study before they had the internet to waste their funding on?

    I'll just Google that a sec...

  18. fishman


    One thing that amazes me is how many people have trouble using search engines - someone will say that they couldn't find something, so I'll just type a couple of words into google, and the right link pops up in the first few choices (and no, it's not because they used bing).

    1. The Infamous Grouse


      I used to wonder this too, until I started actually watching friends and family using Google.

      I would imagine that most of us posting here, when looking for something using a search engine, will think in terms of what sorts of documents might hold that information and how they will have been indexed. So if we're looking for a quotation we might put those few words we know are definitely correct inside quote characters, perhaps with the word 'quotation'. If we're looking for something that might be referenced in a forum discussion, we'll think about how other forum posters may have referred to it and chose keywords they're most likely to have used, ignoring words that would produce too many hits or ambiguous results. If we're really trying to narrow things down we might even use the site: function or other advanced Google tricks.

      On the other hand most non-technical people I know don't really understand what Google is or how it works. They just see it as a magic information portal that answers questions. So they type something completely inappropriate or generic into the search box, full of words like 'how', or 'why', or 'where' but with no specific context to help the algorithms narrow it down, and are disappointed when a load of random links is returned. Worse, they will often then click on the first thing that pops up -- more often than not a sponsored link to something completely irrelevant -- then complain that Google "isn't working".

      There was a time when I would have said the answer is better user education, but then if folk can't grasp the real fundamentals I can't really see what sort of education would work for them. For heaven's sake, users are still having to be reminded by printed publications that URLs are typed into the address bar and not the search box. Even the advent of 'awesome bars' to try to mitigate this led to disaster, as witnessed by the ReadWriteWeb / Facebook login fiasco.

      Perhaps there will always be a divide between people who understand the nature of a particular tool and those who never will. A hammer is one of the simplest tools ever invented, so simple that anyone should be able to use one. Yet while carpenters and skilled DIYers use them to create things of function and beauty, all some people can manage to do is bang holes in the drywall and bruise their thumbs.

  19. Pete 2 Silver badge

    But it's not practical to remember everything

    ... the access time would be too long.

    Worse: you might end up forgetting something important, like how to speak, if that information got pushed out to make room for the names of the 1931 FA Cup final winners.

    I'm sure that's how memory works - but I forget who told me so.

  20. chris swain

    Boffins, seriously?

    Shame on you El Reg ! I thought boffin was reserved for people who do proper stuff, you know, with maths 'n' all and here you apply the honorific to a bunch of trick - cyclists?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hang on, we'ere primates

    Many animals -- primates, herd animals -- associate content with location. Herd animals will return to a location where food or was water was last found and avoid locations where (perceived) danger was experienced. Primates exhibit the same behaviour (known by some technical term that I have forgotten). Humans can find the location of some bit of information in a certain book -- pre-Google -- in their sleep (on this bookcase, in this book, and open the book to this right page) but damned if they can remember the actual information.

  22. RevWubby

    Someone forgot their mythology

    There is a story of the god Theuth giving gifts to the Egyptian people. All the gifts were praised by King Thamus, with the exception of writing, which he said would be the end of memory, making men appear wise without ever becoming so.

    Oh, and radio/movies/TV/comics/internet will rot your brain. *grumble grumble* Damn kids, always on my lawn!

  23. mark 63 Silver badge


    Remember when research used to mean finding out NEW stuff?

    stuff that no-one else knew?

    Now it means some kid copying his homework from an encyclopedia, or more recently google

  24. Buzzword

    Had this at school

    At school we sometimes had "open book" tests. These test your understanding of a subject, rather than just your ability to regurgitate random facts. Internet searches are an extension of the same principle.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Google turning us into forgetful morons"

    What do you mean "turning"?

    I thought that was the default setting for these human things.

  26. Mage Silver badge


    There is an XKCD on this. "my apparent IQ drops when I'm offline" .

    But I'd have to Google for it.

    1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      I was going to say...

      XKCD has a picture of the research taking place.

  27. Yet Another Commentard

    Subtitles for the hard of thinking

    I have read this paragraph about 20 times and I don't understand it:

    "Students were asked a string of tough trivia questions, and then tested to ascertain if they had increased difficulty with a basic colour naming task, showing participants words in either red or blue. Response times to search engine-related words suggested they pinpointed search engines as the mode to locate information."

    Does it mean "I asked people some tricky questions. Then I asked them what colour ink I'd used for typing out a word. Then I noticed they could see that the word Google written in red was indeed red but the word haberdashery written in blue was described as pink. I therefore concluded that they locate what they need to know from Google." How does one follow from the other, or am I missing something, as usual?

    Can somebody please restate it using Very Small Words?

    1. mark 63 Silver badge

      yeah wtf?

      damn good point YAC,

      It appears to say:

      "we asked some trivia questions,

      we asked them to name some colours"

      Then I think we can isolate the gibberish to the last sentence:

      "Response times to search engine-related words suggested they pinpointed search engines as the mode to locate information."

      Whats a search engine related word?

      does it mean if the word was 'google' they could tell you what colour it was quicker?

      does it mean if the word was 'google' they could tell you it was a way to locate information?

      the mind boggles

    2. Intractable Potsherd
      Thumb Up

      Thanks, Yet Another Commentard

      I was worried that no-one was going to ask that question, so I would have to! I cannot see how the methodology leads to the conclusions drawn - there are a number of other interpretations that could be put on it. This idea of associating colours with search engines is tenuous, at least (especially since Google uses several colours in its logo, and shares its white background with ... just about any other search engine, really.

      Perhaps we are stupid ...

  28. Charlie van Becelaere

    I for one

    welcome our amnesiac, file-folder-shuffling overlords.

    1. Jimbo 6

      Ah...'ve also had to deal with the Department for Work & Pensions lately ?

  29. Charlie Clark Silver badge


    Surely some kind of Fawlty prize for stating the bleeding obvious? Or does she pine for rote learning? Associative memory and documentation (as gerund) with an implicit division of labour are pretty key human traits.

    I really must apply for a guest professorship at some US university so I can get on this gravy train (spending on US universities has far outstripped GDP for generations).

  30. Anonymous Coward

    In other (old) news...

    The use of calculators/hammers/<insert tool of choice> will lead to humans working differently than if they didn't have the tool. So?!? Talk about stating the blindingly obvious. As some other post stated, its freeing up resources to be more productive.

    As for planning for a "post apocalyptic world", someone needs to stop reading the Daily Fail et al. Terrorists won't be ruining your future, but there's a good chance that control freaks in government will.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      What's the difference?

  31. John Tserkezis

    I don't think that's going to be a problem...

    ...going on the current questions of your average usenet moron who has never heard of Google, let alone actually USED it to learn something.

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