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Nuts & Bolts

September 26, 2013

Is Google wrecking our memory?

Excerpted from "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better," by Clive Thompson. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Clive Thompson, 2013.

Is the Internet ruining our ability to remember facts? If you've ever lunged for your smartphone during a bar argument ("one-hit father of twerking pop star" — Billy Ray Cyrus!), then you've no doubt felt the nagging fear that your in-brain memory is slowly draining away. As even more fiendishly powerful search tools emerge — from IBM's Jeopardy!-playing Watson to the "predictive search" of Google Now — these worries are, let's face it, only going to grow.

So what's going on? Each time we reach for the mouse pad when we space out on the ingredients for a Tom Collins or the capital of Arkansas, are we losing the power to retain knowledge?

The short answer is: No. Machines aren't ruining our memory.

The longer answer: It's much, much weirder than that!

What's really happening is that we've begun to fit the machines into an age-old technique we evolved thousands of years ago — "transactive memory." That's the art of storing information in the people around us. We have begun to treat search engines, Evernote and smartphones the way we've long treated our spouses, friends and workmates. They're the handy devices we use to compensate for our feeble ability to remember details.

And frankly, our brains have always been terrible at remembering details. We're good at retaining the gist of the information we encounter. But the niggly, specific facts? Not so much. In a 1990 study, long before the Interwebs supposedly corroded our minds, the psychologist Walter Kintsch ran an experiment in which subjects read several sentences. When he tested them 40 minutes later, they could generally remember the sentences word for word. Four days later, though, they were useless at recalling the specific phrasing of the sentences — but still very good at describing the meaning of them.

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