Back in the pre-internet days, if someone asked you a tricky question, you had a couple of options. You could see if anyone you knew had the answer. You could pull out an encyclopaedia. Or you could head down to the library to carry out research. Whichever one you opted for, it was almost certainly more complicated and time-consuming than what you’d do today: Google it.
Thanks to technology – and the internet in particular – we no longer need to depend on our sometimes unreliable memories for random facts and pieces of information. Think about it: when was the last time you bothered to memorise someone’s phone number? And what’s the point in learning the spelling of that long, complicated word when autocorrect will pick it up for you?
But with all the knowledge we could ever need at our fingertips, are we outsourcing our memory to the internet?
We are indeed, according to recent research. The latest study, from academics at the universities of California and Illinois, found that our increasing reliance on the internet is transforming the way we think and remember.
In the study, two groups of people were asked to answer a set of trivia questions. Those in the first group were told to use only their memories, while the others had to look up the answers online. Both groups were then asked a set of easier questions and given the option of using the internet. Those who had used the internet the first time round were much more likely to do so again.
Not only were they more likely to refer to the internet, they were quicker to do so, making very little attempt to figure out the answer themselves, even when the questions were relatively simple.
All of this is evidence of a trend the researchers refer to as “cognitive offloading”. It has become so easy to just look something up online, we’re giving up even trying to remember certain things.
The more important question, then, is whether or not this is a good thing. The opinion seems divided as to whether this is a positive or negative development.
Some argue that by removing the need for rote learning – a system under which we were forced to memorise dates, names and facts – the internet has helped free up cognitive resources for other, more important things.
By relying on the internet as an external hard drive for our memory, we are losing the ability to transfer the facts we hear and read on a daily basis from our working memory to our long-term one, which is essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.
While much more research into the consequences of this remains to be done, perhaps the change isn’t as significant as we might think. After all, as technology we’ve actually been outsourcing our memory for a long time.
Humanity has always relied on coping devices to handle the details for us. We’ve long stored knowledge in books and on paper and post-it notes. It’s just that today, we turn to more sophisticated tools for that helping hand. I think the internet (and technology, more generally) is going to greatly expand the capabilities of the human mind.