Have you ever wondered if people rely a little too much on internet connectivity? A new study may have the answer.

The way we use the internet may be changing the way we use memory – not computer memory, but our own. A recent study has found that people may be relying on the net as a kind of back-up brain, storing their memories there instead of in their own heads.

The study, which was published using the name ‘Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips’ in the US-based Science magazine, found that when pressed for information, most people’s first thought nowadays is to reach for a computer. Researchers Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel M. Wegner, from various leading US universities, got together to design four experiments in an effort to investigate how people now deal with information in this modern age. The results suggest that computer use and broad access to the internet has changed the way we store and access facts.

The idea started life as a theory on how couples share memory. Daniel Wegner, a co-author of the paper resulting from the study, came up with the theory that people in long-term relationships use their partners as memory banks. The idea was polished up and coined in ther term ‘transitive memory’ and has been expanded on in this new study of computers and memory.

How to test when no-one’s looking

Testing a new area of human development is far from easy, but Sparrow, Liu and Wegner went about it using surprisingly simple tools. The first experiment, which modified a basic cognitive test called a Stroop test, showed that subjects were now more likely to consider going to the internet when presented with hard questions.

This result perhaps wasn’t that far different from a reliance on other resources for hard questions, such as dictionaries or a thesaurus, but the second experiment in the process was a lot more revealing. This experiment had half the participants store information in folders on a computer. Participants in the other half were told those files would be deleted shortly after. The participants who thought the files would be deleted then remembered more information than those who believed the data would be safely held for reference.

So, is Google making us dumb and dumber?

Although the study’s results might depress some people, the outcome isn’t strictly a ‘good versus bad’ issue. What the study reveals is that people may be storing data on where to access information, rather than storing the information itself. In the second experiment described above, the participants who moved info into files had an excellent recall of precisely where the information was stored on the computer.

The ultimate outcome of the study suggests two things. People seem to be mentally reaching for the net when they’re confronted with hard questions, and they seem to be making mental maps of where information is stored on computers. The conclusion the researchers reached was that people have developed transitive memory, as Wegner suggested, and that they’re using computers as their own external hard drives.

Is this spooky? A little bit. Everywhere you look these days, people are attached to the net. Whether you’re in the office, at a restaurant or walking down the street, you’ll see faces highlighted by the tiny screens of Smartphones, tablets and net books. It seems that not only are they holding on to a form of communication, but an extra bit of brain space. Is this a bad thing, or another step in our evolution? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

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