Has Google stolen your memory?

Are internet and digital communications changing the way our brains work? Some scientists certainly think so and last week, a new report suggested that if you’re having trouble remembering things, you should blame it on Google.

The study, conducted by assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, Betsy Sparrow, found that our brains just don't remember information as well if we know that the information has been saved on a computer.

What we may remember, however, is where we need to look on the computer to access that information. She told the US News and World Report: "People automatically think of using a search engine and computers and smart phones to find information they don't know. It's as if we're using those devices as external memory sources, and we wondered if by doing things this way people wouldn't remember as well."

So instead of looking up information in books or talking to someone who knows about it, you look it up on the internet as your external memory source. I think the worrying part about this is that the internet becomes a crutch and with the assurance that the information is right there in your system, you don’t feel you have to remember it.

And then of course once you look something up on Google, you then risk being distracted by those links that take you in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Jonathan Freedland writes in The Guardian that we need to learn how to use the off switch.

“The nature of the work itself changes,’’ Freedland writes. “One tweeter complained of the internet producing 'Pot Noodle knowledge', instant and thin. The online bias toward the immediate is strong, forcing us into a permanent 'now', weakening our sensitivity to the past and even to the future.

"If John F Kennedy urged us to have two separate in-trays on our desks – one marked 'urgent' and the other 'important' – the internet is blurring the distinction. The impact of all this is not confined to the quality of intellectual inquiry. It's affecting family life, too."

He recalls the experience of a friend who saw a counsellor for advice about his disruptive children.

"Diagnosis: they were playing up to wrest attention from parents who had one eye forever on the BlackBerry. Some couples report tension, with one constantly tweeting while watching television or even during dinner. That's not so much a third person in the marriage as an entire crowd.”

Then again, you could say that constant distractions are now just part of everyday life that  enrich us and make us more productive. After all, there’s nothing wrong with dipping out and checking the latest news, weather reports sports results or, dare I say, blogs like this one.

Psychologists have done research showing that there is a correlation between cyber slacking and employee productivity, satisfaction and engagement.  James Surowiecki in the New Yorker backs this up by citing a study conducted by the University of Copenhagen which found that people who were first distracted by a funny video performed better at a specific task than their distraction-free counterparts.

You would think this would have significantly positive implications for employers, but research conducted by security company McAfee shows that 70 per cent of Australian companies have some sort of policy blocking or regulating the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

As for Google’s affect on memory, I say who cares? An external memory system can be accessed at will which means that outsourcing our limited attention can free up our minds for more innovative things.

Do you get distracted by the constant availability of the internet - and has it affected your memory?