18 July 2011

Search alters memory

Apparently, according to research by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University and reported by Wired, Ed Yong and in many other places. Using a Stroop test Sparrow found that, when presented with questions that were difficult to answer, students tended to think of computers (i.e. took longer to name colours used for words such as 'Google, browser or computer' than for words less connected with computers).

In a different study, Sparrow asked students to type out a set of unrelated trivia statements and found that those students who had been told the statements would be stored on a computer remembered less of the detail of those statements than those told that the statements would be deleted. Sparrow hypothesises that people use computers as a source of transactive memory - i.e. like a member of a social group who can be relied upon to remember detailed information. Sparrow tested this further in a study where, following typing a trivia statement, students were told the statement would be deleted, or stored in a specific folder. Students remembered more of the statements they had been told would be deleted than those they had been told would be saved, but their memory for the locations that the statements had been saved to was, however, rather good.

Everyone is at pains to say that memory is not getting worse because of computers, just different. Sparrow suggests that human memory is adapting to the tools available, remembering where information is, rather than its content. Yong comments that as location (i.e. specific folder information) becomes less significant in systems that enable search across all kinds of locations, remembering the key words used for searches may become more important than remembering file locations.

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