Is the Internet harming your memory?

by L&D17 Aug 2016
If there’s something you want to find out, where would you turn to?
Chances are that you would venture online via a smartphone, laptop or a desktop at work.
The Internet has long been thought of as a hub for a vast amount of information on just about any topic you can think of.
With such easy access to that technology, surely this could only be a positive for learning outcomes?
Not so, according to a new study, which has found that an increased dependency on the Internet impacts our problem solving abilities, recall and learning.

In an article published in the journal Memory, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, have found that ‘cognitive offloading’ (or the tendency to rely on things like the Internet) increases after each use.

The study involved Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone & Aaron Benjamin conducting experiments to determine the likelihood to reach for a computer or smartphone to answer questions.

Participants were first divided into two groups to answer some challenging trivia questions. The first group used just their memory, while the second used Google.

The groups were then given the option of answering subsequent easier questions by the method of their choice.

The results revealed that participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to use Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory.

Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the Internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly.

Moreover, 30% of participants who previously consulted the Internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.

The lead author Dr Benjamin Storm said that their research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it.

“Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother,” said Strom.

“As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”

Meanwhile, Evan F. Risko, a Canada Research chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Waterloo, added that if you're allowed to store some “to-be-remembered information” on a computer, you probably won't “devote cognitive real estate to remembering it”.

"As a result, your ability to remember that information without the computer will likely be reduced. There's little doubt that these new technologies are affecting what we remember."