The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How the internet affects our memory

New research shows that we tend to remember more poorly things that we think we can look up. As the New York Times describes it:
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.
In other words, we don't put as much effort into remembering things we don't think we have to remember. Does it show that our memories are poorer because of the internet? No. In fact, nowadays we're barraged with so much more information and trivia than we were in the past that learning what is important to actually retain in your noggin and what you can just look up later if you ever need it is a really important skill. In fact, the researchers note that people tend to remember better how to find the info or where it is stored, rather than the info itself.

Ronald Bailey at Reason magazine makes the appropriate connection to Plato's Phaedrus (274e-275b), where Socrates had criticized writing's effect on memory saying:
this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

But Socrates has turned out to be wrong. Writing doesn't diminish our memory; it just changes the way we remember things. Just as writing was in Plato's day, the internet is sort of becoming a back up drive for our memory, a place to go to access stuff we don't have enough room for on our main drive. It supplements our memory. Wegner calls this type of thing "transactive memory," a place "where information is stored collectively outside the brain.

And there's nothing new here. We've always used other sources to supplement our memory, whether it's asking friends, looking it up in books or checking our notes. The difference is that now the internet is almost exclusively filling that role.

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