As a result of the Internet, “Human memory is adapting to new communications technology.”

July 14th, 2011

The Times has a cool piece about how reliance on the Internet has changed the way people remember things. As a result of ease-of-access to a quick Google search, people “have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” Here is the abstract of the study:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Basically, if someone thinks they can rely on Google to find something, they are less likely to store it in memory.

Dr. Sparrow and her collaborators, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, staged four different memory experiments. In one, participants typed 40 bits of trivia — for example, “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” — into a computer. Half of the subjects believed the information would be saved in the computer; the other half believed the items they typed would be erased.

The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. “Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write.

A second experiment was aimed at determining whether computer accessibility affects precisely what we remember. “If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example,” the researchers wrote, “do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?”

In this case, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. The researchers were surprised to find that people seemed better able to recall the folder.

I can vouch for this. As good as my memory is, there are a lot of things I consciously decide not to memorize. I can’t tell you how often I google my own blog to remember what I wrote on a specific topic. I remember I wrote something, but not exactly sure what.  If it is something that I can google in a second, I won’t bother actively trying to remember it. What’s the point? I’d rather focus my skills on learning how to find something, and apply it to the question at hand.

The Times concludes:

The Internet’s effects on memory are still largely unexplored, Dr. Sparrow said, adding that her experiments had led her to conclude that the Internet has become our primary external storage system.

“Human memory,” she said, “is adapting to new communications technology.”

Now how does this impact legal education (and really education more broadly)? Should the law classroom of tomorrow still teach students like they did decades ago, before the Internet (and WestLaw Next) revolutionized how we learn, recover, and apply information?