There was once a time where everyone would turn to each other for answers to both seemingly simple questions, e.g. “What colour is the dress” and tough questions, e.g. “What shall I eat today?”
Thanks to technology and the arrival of search engines, we no longer need to consult our fellow human beings for such matters; Google is here to do the work for us.
Gone are the days where the first person we go to for answers is our mother and the first place we go to is the library.
Today, information is literally at our fingertips. It has become almost like an automatic response for people to whip out their smartphones and consult Google the instant they want to know something.
Just so you get a perspective on how prominent this behaviour is, check out Figure 1.
Google, the most popular search engine today, reported an average of approximately 5.7 billion searches a day!
Compare that with the number of average searches made per day 15 years ago, and you can see for yourself that the numbers have increased drastically.
Seeing how Google has become such a big part of the modern lifestyle, the question we should ask ourselves (not Google) is whether this has made an impact on the way our brains process and handle information.
Perhaps, now that Google is acting as the ultimate information storage system, our minds are free to think about more important things…
But do we?
During the days before the Internet came into existence, people had been using an external memory bank to keep track of information which they themselves could not remember.
These “memory banks” were typically someone close to them, like a spouse: a husband relies on his wife to keep track of where things are placed in the house, while the wife relies on her husband to know how to fix the washing machine when it is down.
This process, whereby one “extends” his knowledge by “storing” information in an external vessel, is known as transactive memory, a phenomenon explored by social psychologist, Daniel Wegner.
Today, the Internet has become our primary form of external or transactive memory due largely to its convenience. Unfortunately, it has been found that there are negative consequences to this.
The Google Effect
According to a study conducted by Betsy Sparrow, a psychologist at Columbia University, people are less likely to remember information which they know they can access later on, such as those that are readily available using search engines. This tendency to forget information that is easily accessible is known as the Google Effect.
Here are some other interesting findings from her research:
- People are primed to look to the Internet first for knowledge.
- People don’t make the effort to remember since they can always look up this information later.
- People tend to recall the places where the information are kept/found better than they can recall the information themselves.
In her research, Sparrow concluded that the Internet has indeed become our primary external storage system. This might not be the good news you think it is.
Apparently, our behaviour is shaping the way our brain works. A renowned author and writer, Nicholas Carr, is highly critical of the impact that the Internet has had on our cognitive functions and his main argument is that the Internet is literally changing the structure of our brains in a way that diminishes our capacity for concentration and contemplation.
For instance, neuroimaging studies have shown that our brains are learning to disregard information found online. This connection becomes stronger each time we experience it.
This means that the more we use Google, the less likely we are to retain what we see.
Although Google seems to be the main topic here but let us not forget how we are increasingly relying more on other forms of technology to store information. Take a minute and check out the Test and Challenge Yourself below to see if you have fallen to the seduction of what technology can offer.
Final thoughts: Technology as a tool
Technology certainly has value in our lives. As such, we ought to appreciate the immense possibilities that it offers and utilise it to maximise productivity.
However, at the same time, I personally believe that we need to know when to switch it off so we can get in touch with people and life around us.
For a start, you can put your smartphones away at the dining table.
Technological tools were first invented to make life easier for us, and sure enough they have.
However, the time has come for us to question ourselves whether we are indeed masters of these technologies, or have we become overly dependent on them to a point where “we can’t live without WiFi”.
Test and Challenge Yourself
See if the following statements apply to you and ask yourself (and each other) if you are relying a bit too much on technology to serve as your memory bank.
- You no longer make the effort to remember phone numbers.
- You Google things which, you know, you probably know the answer to, but do it anyway so you can be sure.
- You switch on Waze even when you probably know how to get to your destination yourself.
- You bookmark multiple articles to read later, and now you’ve most likely forgotten about them.
- You rely on Facebook to keep track of your friends’ birthdays.
Sure, we rely on technology to do the work for us at times; which is why the critical question is to ask how frequently we are doing it.
As I was pondering this, I recalled in particular how I used to keep track of my friends’ birthdays purely by memory.
Unfortunately, I believe that my ability to do that has greatly diminished.
In light of this, I thought of a way in which we can remind one another to stop relying on technology so much to remember birthdays.
Without checking your Facebook or calendar, record a short video of yourself recalling the birthdays (date and month) of five friends under 30 seconds. The five friends will then be automatically nominated to do the same task.
However, if you fail to do so, you’re required to write the words “#BirthdateChallenge” on your forehead and are only allowed to remove it after 24 hours.
Adeline Tay, who completed her Masters in Education (Educational Psychology) at Sydney University, hopes this would be a topic of discussion in your next “mamak” visit. To engage with her, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment in the comment box provided. For more Brain Bulletin articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 16 May 2015