Offloading Memory: Good or Bad for the Brain?

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A new study raises questions about how much we rely on the Internet for knowledge

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Should we be concerned that we remember less information that we know will be available online? That's one possible interpretation of new research reported in the New York Times.

The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. "Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read," the authors write.

A second experiment was aimed at determining whether computer accessibility affects precisely what we remember. "If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example," the researchers wrote, "do we think about flags -- or immediately think to go online to find out?"

In this case, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. The researchers were surprised to find that people seemed better able to recall the folder.

Since the subjects were Harvard undergraduates, according to the Science news report on the paper, we can assume they've been preselected to some extent for efficient study habits. They've at the very least been successful in tests like the SAT and achievement tests, in which Web access is banned.

Electronic search thus appears to be a good strategy in an intellectual division of labor. To use a typewriter-age example beloved of economists: If the best lawyer in town is also the best secretary in town, it still pays for the lawyer to do the high-priced legal work and leave all the typing to a secretary. In this case the brain presumably can free more memory for high-level work by offloading large parts of it to the Web.

What would make this study even more interesting is its repetition with students with lower test scores. Would their minds manage native and technological memory differently?

The real question might be not the efficiency of relying on technological memory but the attitude it may produce. At a library exhibition I saw a copy of the Irish engraver James Malton's Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin (1797), with the paragraph in its dedication to Edmund Burke, on the magnificent library of Trinity College (Malton's engraving is here):

On entering this extensive Library, we are instantly struck with unspeakable reverence, and respect for the place, as if feeling the air impregnated with an emanation of Religion & Learning; and involuntary emotions cause us to acknowledge our own littleness and individual insufficiency, when in the presence of the united efforts and condensed learning of our ancestors . . . [`T]is scarcely possible for the most boisterous and unthinking to enter, but with silent humiliation, and whispering enquiry.

I don't get the same feeling from a video of the interior of a Google data center, though I am a happy and frequent user of its services and absolutely don't yearn for a return to 1797. My point is only that access to electronic memory tends to give us an exaggerated view of our knowledge and skills. The intimidation factor that Malton mentions might have discouraged some people needlessly, but it also challenged others to rise as far as they toward to the level of the greatest thinkers. It sometimes worked here, too, as Thomas Wolfe's reaction to Harvard's Widener Library suggests.

I totally agree with James Gleick's dissent from some cultural conservatives' worries about the cheapening of knowledge and loss of serendipity from digitization of public domain works. To the contrary, I have found electronic projects have given me many new ideas. The cloud has enhanced, not reduced my respect for the printed originals. (The continued storm over Nicholson Baker's Double Fold deserves a future post of its own.)

Technology is indeed our friend, but it can become a dangerous flatterer, creating an illusion of control. Professors and librarians have been disappointed by the actual search skills even of elite college students, as I discussed here. We need quite a bit in our wetware memory to help us decide what information is best to retrieve. I've called this the search conundrum.

The issue isn't whether most information belongs online rather than in the head. We were storing externally even before Gutenberg. It's whether we're offloading the memory that we need to process the other memory we need. Strangely enough, Google Book Search still doesn't display a full copy of Malton's over 200-year-old masterpiece. Let's have it online soon. But let's not forget that healthy sense of "insufficiency."

Image: Reuters.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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