The internet is cheating our brains

Adrian Ward likes to check himself every now and then against the most used search engine on the internet.

“There are times when I tend to Google something, and I haven’t,” says Ward, who studies psychology as an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Because,” he said, “I want to see if I can get that out of my head.”

It’s a challenge familiar to anyone with a smartphone in their pocket who can’t quite remember what year a favorite album came out or the name of an actor in an old movie. Take the phone out? Or crack the brains?

But that choice is more than a way to test our trivia memory. People who rely on a search engine like Google may get the right answers, but they may also get the wrong idea of ​​how strong their own memory is, according to a study published by Ward in August. That’s because online search is so seamless and always available that people often don’t have the chance to experience their own failure to remember things, the study found.

The findings are part of a wave of new research in recent years into the intersection of the Internet and human memory. The implications could be far-reaching, including for the spread of political misinformation, Ward said. He cited years of research on how people make decisions, showing that people who have too much faith in their knowledge become more entrenched in their views on politics and science and may also make questionable financial and medical decisions.

“The bigger effect is that people think, ‘I’m smart. I’m responsible for this. I came up with this info,'” Ward said in an interview.

Adrian Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.
Adrian Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.University of Texas at Austin

A cadre of cognitive scientists, psychologists and other researchers is trying to understand what it means to remember when memories are sometimes shaped by technology in many different ways. It amounts to rethinking how memory will work with each new iteration of digital devices — blurring the line between mind and the Internet into something that could one day be considered an “intermind,” Ward said.

The tech industry is working to further blur the line. Companies like Apple and facebook investigate glasses and headsets to make it easier for someone to always have a computer in front of their face, as Elon Musk’s company plans to roll out Neuralink brain implants for humans after all to test them with monkeys.

The potentially far-reaching consequences are not yet known, but research provides clues into what it means to rely so heavily on the internet to remember.

A 2019 study found that the spatial memory used to navigate the world tends to be worse for people who have used a lot of map apps and GPS devices. Multiple studies have explored how memory can be altered by social media posting, sometimes improve recall and other times induce forgetfulness

In Ward .’s research published in October in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, he used a series of eight experiments to test how people used and thought about their own knowledge while creating short general knowledge questions. Some participants accessed Google while answering the questions, “What is the most widely spoken language in the world?” was one – while others didn’t. They also completed surveys.

He found that people who used Google were more confident in their own ability to think and remember, and falsely predicted that they would know significantly more in future quizzes without the help of the Internet.

Ward attributed that to Google’s design: simple and easy, less like a library and more like a “neural prosthesis” that simulates a search query in a human brain.

“The speed means you never understand what you don’t know,” Ward said.

The findings reflect and build on previous research, including a much-cited 2011 paper on the “google effect”: a phenomenon in which people are less likely to remember information if they know they can find it later on the Internet.

Researchers are not suggesting that people stop apps — a recommendation that would be meaningless anyway. And it’s not clear how closely Google or other companies are following the latest research or whether they would make changes to their products as a result. In a statement this week, Google said its mission was to organize and make the world’s information accessible. “This helps people with all kinds of things in their daily lives,” the company said.

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have debated ways to define human memory. For many modern scholars, it is not as simple as what one can remember at any given time.

“The lay public and even professional computer scientists have a habit of seeing the mind as if it were in individual brains,” said Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University.

But in reality, “we use much more than our own brain to think and remember.”

To help with memory, people have always relied on family, friends and other people, as well as outside sources such as written material, said Sloman, co-author of the book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” He said it is best to think of memory and knowledge in terms of community, not individuals.

“The Internet seems to me to be an extension of what we’ve been doing for millennia, which is to use the world, and it’s now in electronic form,” Sloman said.

Sometimes that comes down to what cognitive scientists call ‘offloading’: giving the brain a break by storing information elsewhere. Keeping track of phone numbers on a cell phone or on paper is a classic example.

But the internet doesn’t just store information. It provides information almost instantaneously at any time, with no queries and generally without fail. And it offers ways to shape memories.

In a overview of recent studies in the field, published in September, researchers at Duke University found that the “externalization” of memories to digital realms “changes what people look at and remember about their own experiences.” Digital media is new and different, they wrote, because of factors such as how easily images can be edited or the sheer number of memories at your fingertips.

Every photographic cue represents another chance for a memory to be “updated,” perhaps with the wrong impression, and every manipulation of a piece of social media content is an opportunity for distortion, the researchers wrote, PhD students Emmaline Drew Eliseev and Elizabeth Marsh. , a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of a laboratory devoted to studying memory.

“These and other questions are about memory — but they arise from a social context that could not have been foreseen two decades ago,” they wrote.

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