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Search Engines' Effect On Human Memory: Good Or Bad?

Over the last few days, a study published in research journal Science scrutinising the effect Google has had on people's ability to recall facts and data, has divided news outlets worldwide with some reports claiming that Google "frees up" brain power while others claimed that it was "making us all dumber".

The research (opens in new tab) - entitled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” - was carried out by Betsy Sparrow from the Columbia University and looked at Transactive memory, the equivalent of external physical storage (e.g. self-storage like Shurgard or Big Yellow) to which we "outsource" our memory, knowing when and how to access it.

It is therefore not surprising that some of the most popular websites online are either data miners (search engines like Google or Yahoo) or data stores (like Wikipedia or IMBD).

Is it a bad thing though? Not necessarily; as the amount of data being generated every year is increasing exponentially, it means that no one can aspire to know everything about anything as one could have aspired to in ancient times.

Being able to export your knowledge and recall it at any time (like Neo in Matrix (opens in new tab) when he was learning Kung-fu) means that you're able to free more brain power to do other things involving critical thinking and creativity, two features that require more than just storage capacity. Furthermore, storage is a comparatively cheap resource compared to computing power.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.